Review by Scott Adlerberg
Thomas Pynchon‘s fictional world teems with mysteries and quests. His first novel, V, from 1963, revolves around a man’s search for an enigmatic woman or spirit named V who has appeared on different continents at critical moments in 20th Century history. In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), California housewife Oedipa Maas investigates why she was unaccountably named executrix of a rich former lover’s estate, an investigation that leads her to discover the possible existence of a secret postal organization inside the United States. And his huge masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is chock-full of conundrums and questions; in Europe during the final days of World War II, protagonist Tyrone Slothrop flees from menacing scientists and double-dealing agents of all kinds as he and others strive to understand the secret behind a destructive device the Nazis plan to put in a V-2 rocket.
The Pynchon universe abounds with conspiracies and tantalizing patterns. For a Pynchon character, paranoia is a sign of intelligence, not madness. Skepticism of all powers that be is the only sane response to a world fought over by covert entities obsessed with increasing their spheres of control and pools of wealth. A master of parody and extravagant invention, an author famous (or infamous) for writing long non-linear books, Pynchon might seem like the last person to write a gritty private eye novel. But in fact his worldview in many ways reflects the view of a detective story writer.
Using paranoia as a guide, his characters are always trying to make sense of the complicated plots they find themselves caught up in. They sniff out and decipher clues. They attempt to separate fact from fancy, truth from lie. His central characters, whatever their faults, are essentially moral and decent people, and stand in contrast to the world’s collection of pricks and bastards ever ready to crush and exploit the individual. A moment when deception is uncovered and a sliver of some kind of truth revealed is a victory, however small, however temporary. It should come as no surprise then that with his seventh novel, 2009’s Inherent Vice, Pynchon produced a book that actually is — no bones about it — a straightforward private eye tale.
Well, not exactly straightforward. This is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about and the plot in Inherent Vice is no typical private eye plot.
The setting is Los Angeles. The time, late 1969, spring of 1970. Chronic pothead Larry “Doc” Sportello is a veteran P.I. living in Gordita Beach, not far from LAX. With a classic private eye novel opening (“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”) his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay comes to his office one day and enlists his help.
The problem: her current boyfriend, the real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, is in danger. Mickey’s wife and her lover, Shasta says, want to put Mickey in a mental hospital so that they can make a grab for his fortune. Doc and Shasta haven’t been romantic for quite some time, but their relationship remains warm and it’s clear that Doc has never completely gotten over Shasta. He takes the case. Soon after, he gets a visit from a black ex-con named Tariq, who hires Doc to find a certain Glen Charlock, a former prison mate of Tariq’s. Tariq says that Charlock owes him money. So happens that Charlock also happens to be a bodyguard for Mickey Wolfmann. Two people now have hired Doc to do jobs, and both jobs relate to Wolfmann.
Poking around, Doc visits a massage parlor owned by Mickey and winds up getting clubbed on the head and knocked unconscious. Not only that, when he wakes up, he finds that Charlock has been shot and killed inside the parlor. Long time frenemy Bigfoot Bjornsen of the LAPD informs him that he doesn’t have much of an alibi. Prime suspect number one, Doc is questioned and released by both the LAPD and the FBI, and he discovers that both Mickey and Shasta have vanished. In fact, for all he can tell, both may be dead.
At this point, we are in vintage private eye novel territory and we have a sense that Inherent Vice, for all the Pynchon jokes, won’t be a mere parody of a detective novel. That’s a good thing. A story is developing, our private eye is on the case, and we want to know what will happen next. Well, much will come next, but what does follow will leave the conventional PI novel world behind and takes us into pure Thomas Pynchon terrain.
Sportello does genuine gumshoe work despite all the pot he smokes. He’s not always sure whether something he said in his head is something he also voiced aloud, but he’s no fool and he is dogged. Pursuing leads, he crisscrosses LA and environs in a manner worthy of Philip Marlowe. He investigates the mystery of a rock musician thought to be dead after an apparent drug overdose but now apparently working for a government counter subversive group. He learns of a CIA project that put Richard Nixon’s face on millions of dollars in US currency. He enlists the help of a bounty hunter friend named Fritz who spends all his time doing private surveillance amid “computer cabinets, consoles with lit-up video screens, and alphanumeric keyboards and cables running all over the floor.”
This is a “network of computers called ARPAnet,” a forerunner of the Internet. He keeps coming across something called The Golden Fang, which in true Pynchon fashion seems to be a few things at once. As his lawyer Sauncho Smilax tells him, The Golden Fang is a schooner with a long mysterious past that involves smuggling off the California coast. At the same time, The Golden Fang may just be an Asian criminal gang linked to drugs, the Nixon-faced counterfeit money, Vietnam and China.
But wait — the Golden Fang is also a business syndicate composed primarily of dentists who set the company up for legitimate tax purposes. A visit to the Golden Fang company headquarters leads Doc to a young woman named Japonica Fenway who was once a runaway Doc restored to her parents.
Still troubled, she reveals she has spent time at a clinic called The Chryskylodon Institute, where Doc promptly goes. He bumps into Coy Harlington there and finds evidence that Mickey Wolfman passed through. It seems that Mickey must have been brought to the clinic against his will and perhaps he and Shasta both were then spirited away on the schooner The Golden Fang. Meanwhile, Doc learns, Glen Charlock was shot at the Chick Palace massage parlor during an attack mounted by a “little private militia the LAPD uses whenever they don’t want to look bad in the papers.”
You get the idea. Inherent Vice is byzantine. My recap here has boiled down the goings on and I’ve only reached a point halfway through the book. Of course, the byzantine quality itself is nothing original for a California detective novel. We expect such intricate plotting, whether the storyline is somewhat incoherent as it can be with Raymond Chandler or beautifully structured as with Ross MacDonald. The funny thing is that for a Thomas Pynchon book, Inherent Vice is his most accessible. Despite the abundance of characters and the mysteries within mysteries within funny asides, Inherent Vice has more straight ahead drive than any of his previous books, including the much shorter Lot 49.
On the other hand, Inherent Vice is not, as some have said, Pynchon-lite. I don’t buy that critique. Inherent Vice lacks the apocalyptic darkness that permeates Gravity’s Rainbow and other Pynchon works, but it still explores ideas and issues Pynchon has explored for years. Conspiracies proliferate in Inherent Vice — the sense that behind every large power structure there lurks yet another layer of power.
And Pynchon, even using the established genre of the private eye novel, is up to all his old tricks. We get the characters with silly names — Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, Arthur Tweedle, Rudy Blatnoyd — and we have sprinkled throughout the pages the humorous songs invented by Pynchon. The characters love to discuss movies and television shows (Doc’s favorite actor is John Garfield) and nearly every character has some eccentric tic or obsession.
Above all else, as far as the characters are concerned, you have the usual Pynchon dichotomy: on one side, the characters who tend toward a “live and let live” philosophy — however odd their individual preoccupations — and on the other those who in some way ally themselves with the forces of power, repressive forces.
While Pynchon’s sympathy lies with the live-and-let-live people (best represented in this book by the hippies and party chicks and their ilk), Pynchon’s narrator retains a pleasant non-judgmental tone toward everyone, including the forces of law and order. This is best seen through Bigfoot Bjornsen, Doc’s almost-friend. For the whole book, the two interact. Each time they meet they verbally spar, and their banter is hilarious. Bigfoot continually calls Doc “hippie scum” and worthless this and brain-dead that, but his insults are lightly delivered. Doc never takes offense at them. They both try to use each other to pick up information about their cases, but there’s a camaraderie between the two. Doc often finds himself worrying about Bigfoot’s mental state and Bigfoot mentions his respect for Doc’s tenacity and skill with firearms.
Skill with firearms? How unhippie-like of Doc! Also unhippie-like is Doc’s sometime sexual relationship with an assistant DA. For all his love of pot and rock-and-roll and casual sex whenever it presents itself, Doc has enough of the straight world in him to make him believable as a detective. He’s not a radical trying to burn the world down; he comes across as a pot-infused version of a conscientious private eye. He’ll handle cases for very little money and continues working on some even when it’s obvious he won’t get paid. He has a sympathy for outcasts and “losers” that Lew Archer would understand.
Is he heroic? Not exactly, and not in any grand sense, but Doc does have physical courage and will go anywhere his leads take him. This being the Sixties, however, he doesn’t so much go down mean streets as weave through kaleidoscopic labyrinths.
Because of Sportello’s cheerfully indulgent pot-smoking ways, Inherent Vice has been cited as an example of “Stoner Noir.” And I’d be remiss here if I didn’t bring up the other chief example of this noir variant, The Big Lebowski. It’s impossible to read Pynchon’s book without thinking of the Coen Brothers’ movie and Jeff Bridges’ performance as Jeff Lebowski.
Is The Big Lebowski an influence on Inherent Vice? It could be, and one figures that Pynchon saw the film and enjoyed it, but as a matter of fact, there are more differences than similarities between the two works.
For one thing, Sportello is a professional Los Angeles P.I. while Lebowski is not. Besides his law enforcement contacts and his comfort with guns, Sportello even dons disguises when he deems it necessary. He does seem to have some sort of investigative method, albeit an unusual, pot-driven one. And whereas The Big Lebowski is set in the early 1990s and features characters (Lebowski, his friend Walt) who were molded by the 1960s, Sportello actually inhabits the psychedelic era. He smokes and drives and does his thing dead smack in the heart of late 60’s countercultural Southern California, and if nothing else, Inherent Vice is a wonderful evocation of a time and a place.
“The bums lost,” is how the rich older Lebowski describes the 60’s to the middle-aged hippie Lebowski, and no doubt many people see the 60’s this way. But Thomas Pynchon isn’t one of them. He writes with affection for the freewheeling sexual mores, the carefree youth and the happy dopers. Casual drug use, of pot and LSD in particular (but not other drugs, an important point), is shown as fun. More than that: they enrich the imagination. As many P.I.s hit the bottle for sustenance, Doc Sportello reaches for a joint, and why he should feel defensive about his particular brand of fortification? But what am I talking about? The detective as drug user goes all the way back to our dear friend Sherlock Holmes.
Finally, it is as a detective novel that imbeds its peculiar mystery plot in a fond look back at a specific time and place that Inherent Vice succeeds best. For Doc Sportello spends much time reflecting not only on the particulars of his case, but on the developments, the ebb and flow, of his era. He’s noticed the forces out there determined to stamp out the hippies, the screwballs, the kooky misfits:
If everything in this dream of pre-revolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.
Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever–those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
Doc enjoys the time he’s in, but he has a feeling for what’s coming next. Manson and his family have just committed their murders, and references to how LA is on edge resonate through the novel. Using Manson and his murderous hippie followers as an emblem of the end of the carefree Sixties is hardly new, but it still serves as an effective image. The hippie, once considered silly but harmless, is now a potential threat:
- Doc noticed for the first time that both cops were… well, not trembling, the police wouldn’t tremble, but vibrating for sure, with the post-Mansonical nerves that currently ruled the area.
Doc sees that the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness… but like any private eye worth his salt he doesn’t let the darkness in the air defeat him. He closes his case, and he even has to break out of handcuffs, hit people, and use his gun to do it.
And considering everything, is life so bad? The last we see of Doc he’s doing the prototypical Californian thing, driving in his car, listening to rock and roll on his radio. He seems pretty content. He has more than half a tank of gas, coffee in a container, a full pack of smokes. He could just be the most likable, fully rounded character Thomas Pynchon has created to date, and we’re glad that through his complicated case he’s righted at least a few wrongs.
Inherent Vice is charming, atmospheric, and very funny. It’s Pynchon, but it even has a good plot! I highly recommend it.