Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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.

The small details are half the fun here.  For no extra charge, the reader is given
a new interpretation of the Japanese movie
Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster
(1964) which explicates it as a reworking of
Roman Holiday (1953)—full
disclosure: I still can't decide whether Ghidrah is supposed to be Audrey
Hepburn or Gregory Peck.  We find Henry Kissinger on the
Today show,
formulating foreign policy: "Vell, den, ve schould chust bombp dem, schouldn't
ve?"   We learn about a Beverly Hills auto collision repair shop called The
Resurrection of the Body.  And we find a health food joint off Melrose called The
Price of Wisdom, which is located upstairs from Ruby's Lounge—but you will
need to check out
Job 28:18 to figure that one out.  

What other writer would give you counterfeit money with Richard Nixon’s picture
on all denominations? an immense stash of heroin that doubles as a new type
of TV set? a class action suit representing viewers of the movie
The Wizard of
Oz
? a lost continent at the bottom of the ocean whose exiles simply moved to
Los Angeles? or an encounter between Godzilla and the folks on
Gilligan's
Island
?  Every page has something strange and wonderful—although
sometimes just plain strange. I’m not sure what drugs you need to take to
come up with this stuff. Certainly I’ll pass on the pills, thank you very much. But
I read the book, and with pleasure.

Here is a taste:

Offshore winds had been to strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers
found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which
seemed like a visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds
and heat and restlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing
with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the
spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies. The state
liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles in the stores were coming unstuck, is
how dry the air was. . . . In the little apartment complexes the wind entered
narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves
of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside,
in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind
raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a
tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of
course there'd be only the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.

Pynchon has found his perfect element: namely water with a tiny fringe of sand.
He has done war-torn London and California wine country and other settings in
the past. But his worldview and writing style have always possessed something
of the surfer’s freeform daring about them, and a fluid sense of structure that is
almost an anti-structure. All of these traits contribute to the success of
Inherent
Vice
.

We also encounter some of this author's characteristic blindspots here—you
shouldn't read Pynchon expecting psychological depth, plausible situations, or a
coherent interpretation of modern life.  In this regard,
Inherent Vice is in keeping
with his previous books. But, dang, this novel is readable in a way that Pynchon
has rarely been before. I have come to expect the unexpected from this author,
but this time he really surprised me—in the eternal battle between form and
content, he has shown the smallest glimmer of a formalist streak.  

And you, dear reader? If you have been scared off of this writer because of his
daunting reputation, this is the time to put your toe—or your whole boogie
board—in the water. I have read lots of novels in my time, but this was the first
one I finished by exclaiming: “Tubular!”


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool
Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

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