After the vast tundra of his last book, Against the Day, which was a thousand-plus pages, with more than a hundred or so scurrying characters and a shape-shifting plot that went everywhere and nowhere, Thomas Pynchon has decided to give his fan base a break. His seventh novel is practically beach reading. Inherent Vice is a comic-noir detective tale set in Los Angeles around 1970, not long after the Manson murders added their special note to the already twitchy local vibe.
But it’s also a Pynchon novel, meaning it’s a wizardly bit of philosophical burlesque, with densely packed speculations on the hidden hands that shape history and with notions of reality that are elastic enough to allow for astral twins, could-be zombies and old spirits rustling at the margins. The Pynchon wiki sites have been poised for months to group-grope every sentence for hidden meanings. They won’t be disappointed.
So even if this is second-tier Pynchon, it’s still entertainment of a high order. It was only a matter of time before he would write a private-eye novel. Each of his books has been built around a character or two or 12 on a quest into the heart of a mystery that is never quite solved. The difference here is that Pynchon finally makes one of those characters a licensed gumshoe, albeit one with an incongruous hippie backstory. “Doc” Sportello is an ambling longhair with links to the surfer world and an appetite for controlled substances that would give Hunter S. Thompson pause. Think George Carlin as Philip Marlowe and you’re getting there.
One night Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta shows up on his doorstep asking for help. It appears that her new squeeze, the powerful real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, may be the target of a kidnapping scheme. When Mickey disappears and Shasta too the lovelorn Doc, with quantities of superior weed, plunges into a many-layered plot. It involves, among other things, the LAPD, organized crime, disorganized crime, a lecherous dentist and the Golden Fang, which is sometimes a mysterious schooner, sometimes a no-nonsense drug cartel. Pynchonesque multitudes crowd into the picture. Tight-lipped federales, stoner lawyers, ex-con neo-Nazis with a big thing for show tunes they tumblesault in every page or two, each bearing, maybe, a piece of the puzzle.
Granted, there’s not much here that’s new. Pynchon, 72, has been playing variations on these themes since the genius trifecta of his early days: V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. Even the grace notes are familiar. Inane, invented song lyrics Got ’em. Festive foodstuffs Pass the chocolate-covered frozen bananas. Funny names How about a drug dealer called El Drano It’s an anagram for his real name, Leonard. Which, let’s be clear, is pretty funny.
And speaking of Leonard, Inherent Vice is like nothing so much as an Elmore Leonard novel with metaphysical aims. It has the same deadpan dialogue, the same lowlife panache, the same Venice BeachtoVegas locales that Leonard has touched down in. But the earthbound author of Get Shorty doesn’t go in for Pynchon’s lyrical riffs about the immemorial forces that pull the world’s secret levers and keep the dispossessed of all kinds the poor, the nonwhite, the nonconforming from coming into their own.
All the same, don’t expect that by the end of this book you’ll be vouchsafed a clear picture of just what those forces are. Pynchon doesn’t do closure. What he does, and brilliantly, is open windows onto a universe where we’re all in custody, but we’re none of us sure who put on the cuffs.
See the 100 best movies of all time.
See the 100 best novels of all time.