I must have run into this Pynchon fellow back when he was working on Gravity’s Rainbow. The reclusive author was living in Manhattan Beach and haunting the coastline of the South Bay of Los Angeles. During the same period Manhattan Beach and nearby Hermosa Beach were my teenage homes away from home, and the places where I hung out—Either/Or Bookstore, the Lighthouse, Zeppies Pizza, Taco Bill’s—were just the sort of storefronts to attract the custom of a counterculture sort like Mr. Pynchon.
I have long wondered which of those beach bums was the eccentric postmodern novelist. Was he there watching the great Buzz Swartz and Matt Gage dominate the strand volleyball scene? Hell, maybe he is Matt Gage—they look enough alike. Or was he seated next to me at the Lighthouse, checking out Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s sax heroics? Or should I believe my friend’s insistence that the erudite gentlemen who dominated the conversation at a book discussion group at the local beach library was in fact the author of Vineland and V?
Now after reading Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s latest novel, I am all the more convinced that this author was shadowing me all that time. The story is set in Gordita Beach (a stand-in for Manhattan Beach) in April and May of 1970, and is immersed in the surfadelic culture of the period. Yes, the Lighthouse appears here, as do dozens of other places where I might have crossed paths with the secretive Mr. P.
This is more than a novel about the beach; it is also—uncharacteristically for this often challenging author—a book you could bring to the beach for an entertaining read amidst the sand and sun. The plot moves with great speed; by page 25, the reader has already enjoyed a dose of sex, murder, drugs and rock-and-roll. But there is plenty more of all of these to come. Before Inherent Vice comes to its wipeout of a conclusion, you will have encountered enough narcotics to keep a Columbian cartel busy for a year, and so many corpses that Thomas Nogouchi needs to call a temp agency for backup support.
Doc Sportello is the hippie private investigator at the center of these strange happenings. Doc’s track record is spotty at best. He probably commits more crimes than he solves. His memory and mental skills might once have been first- rate, but that was about ten thousand reefers ago. Nowadays he is lucky if he doesn’t have a hallucinatory flashback at the worst possible moment. Even when he delivers the goods, he rarely gets paid. In short, he is more attuned to the karmic valence than the criminal elements surrounding him.
Yet people come to Doc rather than go to the police. This gives him access to loads of secret info. He knows about a strange smuggling outfit called the Golden Fang, a surf sax player who died from an overdose then came back to life, a real estate developer with strange plans for personal redemption, a loan shark who can get away with murder, and a host of other conspiracies, shake- downs, put-ons, and mix-ups. All these plot elements somehow fit together—if just barely. By the time you get the finish line of Inherent Vice you have SoCal conspiracy so broad-based it makes Chinatown look like a Paris-Hilton-overnight- in-the-slammer offense.
Fans of Pynchon know how meticulously he researches his period writings. Scholars have demonstrated that Pynchon immersed himself in the London newspapers of the WWII-era while writing Gravity’s Rainbow, tossing out enough throwaway clues hither and thither to keep a whole generation of tweed-coated academics busy. Inherent Vice reveals a similar degree of deep research. The news events of the Spring of 1970—the impending Charles Manson trial, the Lakers-Knicks series, various Nixon and Kissinger theatrics— simmer away in the background here, along with a plethora of geographical and cultural minutiae. Seymour hosts the Halloween show at the Wiltern, hit songs reach rad decibels on KHJ, Cal Worthington shows off his “dog” Spot, shoppers flock to Zody’s and Zeidler & Zeidler . . . readers from colder climes will come up short trying to place many of these names. But Pynchon knows the smog- infested lanes through which he is navigating.
An occasional anachronism will slip through. Okay, I will cut Pynchon some slack, and assume that there might have been a doper with an Internet connection back in 1970—our author at least knows that ARPA-Net is the proper terminology given the period. But I hate to tell Tom that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still going under the name of Lew Alcindor back then. And I simply refuse to believe that any SoCal surfer knew about the big waves at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay during the Nixon administration. Yet these are small gripes in a book that gets so much right.
The dialogue is crisp and clever—almost ready for a Quentin Tarantino film. The prose avoids the degree of self-indulgence that I associate with this author, and at times approaches the one adjective I never thought I would apply to Pynchon: tight. The novelist retains many of his time-honored trademarks: a preference for lots and lots of characters (I recommend you keep a scorecard)— albeit handled more deftly here than elsewhere in his oeuvre; a certain conceptual extravagance that pushes everything two or three steps beyond anything taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop; and, above all, the paranoid tone, of which Pynchon is perhaps our greatest connoisseur. Other novelists have written about the Mob, but only Pynchon looks for The Mob behind the Mob.