In 1990, 17-years after the appearance of the godlike Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, a distinct departure from the dense surrealism and PoMo high jinx to be found in his earlier books. Quite readable and relatively linear, Vineland evoked a post-‘60s hippie hangover that seemed plausible in its vibe if not the details, and fraught with paranoia. The book was a hell of a lot of fun. Few Pynchon admirers would agree with me that it’s his best book, and most of the reviews at the time trashed it.
Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice returns to the same hippie milieu, this time in Southern California, and combines elements of The Big Lebowski, Dashiell Hammett, John Garfield’s movies, and the TV cop shows and Hollywood movie bikinis-and-surfboards grooviness of the early ‘70s.
Unlike much hardboiled fiction, Inherent Vice is told in third person. Private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello is a long-haired, huarache- and t-shirt wearing, pot-smoking, gun-strapped-to-his-ankle stud. He tells bad jokes and is pure of heart, which the cynicism inherent in the traditional first person narrator’s blow-by-blow simply wouldn’t suit.
The novel begins when Doc’s “ex-old lady” Shasta Fey Hepworth arrives in his office, diminished in sexual allure, and in trouble. Her rich boyfriend, predatory real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, is being plotted against by his wife and her boyfriend, who have sought to secure Shasta’s help in having Mickey committed to an asylum.
It seems that Mickey has had a change of heart about his rapacious money-grubbing and wants to give it all back doing good deeds. The wife and, as it turns out, everyone from the FBI to secret drug-dealing cartels don’t want Mickey to do anything of the sort. Heart sore, Doc takes the case.
Mickey is soon abducted in a wild shoot-out that leaves Doc unconscious in a massage parlor and then in custody and under suspicion in the hands of Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD detective and part-time TV ad celebrity shilling for Mickey’s real estate developments. Bigfoot, Doc’s chief nemesis, is a tireless persecutor of hippies and gradually, seeming to cut Doc some slack, manipulates him into investigating the death of his partner, which is not unconnected to the disappearance of Mickey.
One of several sub-plots, Doc is approached by the wife of a supposedly deceased surf band saxophonist, who she doesn’t believe really died of a heroin overdose, though both husband and wife are junkies. Doc agrees to look into this, and other matters, all “on spec”.
At this point, to attempt to trace the various and tangled lines of intrigue and corruption the novel draws across L.A. and Las Vegas, would take too much space and give away entirely too much. The fun is in the unraveling of the plot and the energy and color with which Pynchon paints his many eccentric, sexy, insane, hapless, and evil characters.
Doc is a vivid creation. He beds his share of the girls and solves a multitude of mysteries and never once, thankfully, gets beaten to a pulp or threatened with castration. He’s luckier than smart. His good intentions and pot-inspired intuition never quite lead him astray.
But the real star of the novel is the prose. Pynchon, as in this opening paragraph, can be straightforward, descriptive, and topical.
She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & The Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she never would.
But also throughout the book there are gorgeous, freighted passages like this one describing a drive through L.A. fog:
He crept along until he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered a while for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.
(James Joyce, in Dubliners in particular, wrote some of the finest prose of the 20th century, but chose instead to move on to the experimentation of Ullyses and the dream language of Finnegans Wake. After finishing this novel, I find myself yearning for Pynchon’s own equivalent of Dubliners.)
Inherent Vice is not a novelization of a screenplay, as Denis Johnson’s recent foray into the hardboiled genre, Nobody Move, appears to be (not that it wouldn’t make a heck of a movie), nor is it an important author taking a literary vacation by genre-slumming. The a-ha moment is in a glimpse of a raving, fascistic Richard Nixon on TV. This moment, and others less overt, clue us in to the novel’s darker heart.
Pynchon’s L.A. may be a parallel universe, his FBI may be the ultimate wet dream of J. Edgar Hoover. The machinations of the “Golden Fang” cartel, which include both dentistry and drug-dealing, may be a caricature of everything from the Mob to the malign, invisible super rich depicted in movie after movie these days. But at bottom, here as in Vineland, Pynchon wants us to understand that all of it—what “inherent vice” is all about—is only a few degrees removed from present day reality.