Click here to read reviewer Steven Rosen's take on Inherent Vice or
here for Sandie Kirkland's review.
It’s the winter of 1969 in Gordita Beach, a mythical beach town near the Palos Verdes peninsula. The Summer of Love, never really alive in Southern California, is still a “great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.” Pot smoke and nearby Long Beach petroleum refineries thicken the air. The Manson Family arrests and trial burn broadcast bandwidth. Larry “Doc” Sportello is on the trail of... Something. Something big. Maybe. If only he could quit smoking long enough to remember how to answer the phone.
It’s something completely different and it’s Thomas Pynchon’s best novel ever. Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s second novel to feature cannabis as a more or less primary character (the earlier being Vineland, which locale, being a mythical Humbolt County, more or less, gets a passing mention here). In Inherent Vice a joint (pinners, fatties, “that new Thai stick,” Humbolt sinsemilla, PCP-laced boiler makers) gets lit at least once in every chapter. (If memory serves. Which it may not. Who really knows these things?)
Doc Sportello and Inherent Vice represents a major breakthrough -- for Pynchon who, now in his 70s, comes out of the closet as a comic novelist (rather than a deeply literary writer with comic spurs on his boots), but for crime writing as well. Welcome to stoner noir (it’s “gumsandal,” not gumshoe), where paranoia as a way of knowing could be the result of humping the hemp plant too early in the morning or maybe, just maybe, because the bastards really are after you. How else to explain Nixon’s visage on fat bundles of twenty-dollar bills? The game is afoot, Watson!
The code of the noir PI genre is both honored and lampooned in Pynchon’s most accessible novel yet. Doc is in the mystery for himself, as Louis Menand points out by way of Raymond Chandler, not because he’s a hired gun:
“He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man, or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him... The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.”
But never was Chandler very funny, much less side-splittingly so. Men get away with murder because who could pick them out of a lineup? “Everything I really did, I got away with,” says one character, “because the only description they had was Caucasian male, long hair, beard, multicolored clothing, bare feet, so forth.” You seen one Jesus on acid, you seen ‘em all. “Thing about hippie getups,” Doc says, “is you can almost fit a Heckler & Koch under here if you want.” Tip o’ the hat to Chekhov’s gun in the first act, there: it’s gonna be used in the third.
Not that there’s no depth. This is Pynchon, after all, so there’s a conspiracy twisting the plot tighter than a virgin’s knickers, and one that makes anything Chandler dabbled in -- or Manson, for that matter -- look like a Maurice Sendak production. Who, then, or what, is the Golden Fang?
A ship, a gang, a tooth that, vampire-like, punctuates the jugular so the author can juggle the plot. All that and more but, then too, a motif that suddenly vanishes like a fish story or, SoCal beach town-like, is gone from GNASH, “the Global Network of Anecdotal Surfer Horseshit.”
Contra Missing Persons (but in danger of becoming one), Doc is a peripatetic in L.A. On a stroll, he muses, in re the Golden Fang:
“Let’s see--it’s a schooner that smuggles in goods. It’s a shadowy holding company. Now it’s a Southeast Asian heroin cartel.... Wow, this Golden Fang, man--what they call many things to many folks...”
In the end, things maybe don’t line up perfectly. So what; neither does life; get used to it. It’s a funny book, a ripping yarn, and it unambiguously has a happy ending. It breathes new life into (or smokes the old ghosts out of) crime fiction, which has gone maddeningly formulaic and down market, catering to the short-attention-span theater crowd. And Inherent Vice resonates with so many rock ‘n’ roll cultural references it’s a wonder the ink doesn’t vibrate off the page: “I’m lower than a groupie,” someone says to Doc on one of his investigative outings, “fetching weed, opening beers, making sure there’s only aqua jelly beans in the big punch bowl in the parlor.”
And the writing is, as ever with Pynchon, scintillating. Even the smog is gorgeous, “the traffic reduced to streams of reflective trim, twinkling ghostly along the nearer boulevards, soon vanishing into brown bright distance.”
It’s a big, beautiful romp of a novel, maybe the best of the first decade of the 21st century, sexy and side-splitting--and sobering, too. Cut to the last pages, no spoiler alert needed, for this line, a flash-forward from the end of an era: “even the infrared and night vision they’re using in Vietnam is still a long way from X-Ray Specs,” but time “moves exponentially, and someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape.”