Doc Sportello (Inherent Vice)

Created by Thomas Pynchon

“PIs are doomed, man, you could’ve seen it coming for years, in the movies, on the tube. Once there was all these great old PIs–Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the shamus of shamus Johnny Staccato, always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are following the wrong leads and getting in the way…  But, nowadays the tube is saturated with… cop shows, just being regular guys, only trying to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody’s freedom than some dad in a sitcom. Right. Get the viewer population so cop-happy they’re begging to be run-in. Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you’re at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett. Meantime out here in the real world, most of us private flatfoots can’t even make rent.”
— Doc bemoans the waning popularity in pop culture of the private eye

When I first started reading Inherent Vice (2009), American master of letters Thomas Pynchon’s first real foray into detective fiction, I’ll admit I had high hopes. Not that I was familiar with his previous work, but I figured it still oughtta be pretty good. After all, he’s supposed to be one of the great writers of our age, right?

And it wasn’t like this was some big shot slumming and loudly announcing he was going to transcend the genre–everything I’d heard about Pynchon suggested he was pretty far from the elitist snobs some of his fans were. I mean, the guy’s supposedly a recluse, but somehow he actually popped up on The Simpsons. Doing his own voice even. So he may be a whack job, but this was one cat whose pop culture cool cred was definitely in order.

So I started reading it. It was a big chunk of a book, but I’d read bigger. And at first, I failed to see what the fuss–either way–was about. His meandering, substance-addled detective, LARRY “DOC” SPORTELLO, reminded me a lot of James Crumley’s gumshoes, with a definite touch of Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye tossed in. So, nothing particularly original, but nothing particularly bad, either. I was enjoying it.

And so I kept on reading. Doc seemed pretty shaky as a detective, even for one working the hazy, dazy, crazy days of Los Angeles in the early seventies, and his constant barrage of wisecracks and quips was amusing, despite a few real groaners. And some of the bits are pure gold (I love the Sinatra bit with the cops — it’s pure Marx Brothers).

So far, so good, I figured. Pynchon’s set the scene: Gordita Beach, a sort of 24/7 Surf City, full of babes, cheap dope, and perfect waves. He’s got Shasta, the obligatory girl-from-the-past needing Doc’s help. She’s worried about her super-rich boyfriend who’s being blackmailed. And you’ve got Doc: an affable guide to it all. The good stuff will be happening soon, right?


Oh, sure, the plot sort of starts to warm up a little, but it never really comes to a boil. Hell, it rarely gets more than lukewarm before it’s sidetracked. And then the sidetracks get sidetracked. And then come the subplots, the sideplots and the counterplots. And the dope and the babes and the wisecracks keep coming until we’re drowning in a sea of lost continents, maritime law, J. Edgar Hoover’s sex life, the pre-Internet Internet, surf music and ruminations on the quality of homegrown dope.

After a while, I began to Peggy Lee myself.

Is that all there is?

Sure, the spirit of the times and place are captured well, but there’s no trace of any sort of genius, either inherent or apparent. All that dope humour gets real old real fast (sub-par routines Cheech & Chong would have passed on), and all those slow-mo witticisms and digressions and the absence of a coherent plot make Crumley’s mid-period books seem driving and tight. And then I realized that all those colourful supporting characters were all surprisingly flat; self-consciously quirky walk-ons, with few of them being particularly original. And instead of adding any real substance to any of his characters, he just brings in new ones.

Or maybe it was me.

It has been suggested in some quarters (Thanks, Mom!) that I’m simply not smart enough to understand Pynchon, or that I’m not evolved enough to see the “big picture.” But I’m beginning to suspect there is no “big picture,” after all — just the wishful thinking of the faithful.

Or perhaps it’s my familiarity with detective fiction that’s the culprit. If, as has been suggested by some that “Fiction should take you to places you don’t normally go,” one of my main problems with Inherent Vice is that I’ve already been there.

The early seventies? Hippies versus the Man? Stoners, surfers, crooked cops? SoCal? A detective not always quite as focussed as perhaps he should be?

Been there, done that. And enjoyed it better than this trip.

I’m not saying Pynchon has no right going near the detective novel, or that he’s condescending toward the genre as others have suggested, but I wonder how much of his reputation helped get this thing published?

I dunno.

Some people whose opinions I truly respect seem to have liked it well enough.

But if you put enough English Lit majors and would-be intellectuals in a room, set them all to deconstruction mode and allow them to scratch their chins long enough, eventually you’ll get all sorts of unique interpretations and blather about “non-falsifiable speculation,” “the beauty of the forking paths and their effect on things” and “the basic splitting process of the alternate realities and histories as followed by the ordinary and extraordinary ray” as exemplified by the alternative tangents of Doc’s investigation. And you’ll hear all sorts of stuff about the genre being “transcended.”

Yeah, right. Transcend this, toots.

The picture may not be that big after all. Or certainly smaller than we were lead to expect or hope for. Maybe Pynchon just wanted to write a detective story. Maybe he’s even a fan of the genre. Which is really cool. But he couldn’t do it, and ended up with this Day Glo shaggy dog story, doing an adequate — but not earth-shattering — job of it.

There are worse crimes.

* * * * *

In December 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of the novel was released, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc, I was interested in seeing what made the cut and what didn’t. Two or so hours of a film versus almost 400 pages of text. While it didn’t annoy me as much as the novel did, and I certainly enjoyed Phoenix’s take on Doc, I still found it a rather disappointing slog, a film of its era turning another era into a cynical caricature.

But once again, what do I know? Other people seem to have liked it well enough. Actor Ethan Hawke, who wasn’t even in the film, liked it, calling it a “mysterious, brilliant crazy movie. I can’t imagine trying to adapt Pynchon for the screen, no less succeeding at it… the whole cast was gonzo and perfect.”


  • “Fans… will know (Inherent Vice) for the throwaway masterwork it is: playful as a dolphin, plaintive as whale song, unsoundably profound as the blue Pacific.”
    — Publishers Weekly
  • “Huh?”
    –Kevin Burton Smith



  • INHERENT VICE | Buy on DVD | Buy on Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
    (2014, Warner Bros.)
    Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon
    Adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson
    Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
    Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello
    Also starring Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Benicio Del Toro


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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