Michael Dirda Reviews Thomas Pynchon's 'Inherent Vice'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 6, 2009


By Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press. 369 pp. $27.95

For more than 45 years, Thomas Pynchon has been the hidden god of modern letters, rarely photographed, never interviewed, but nonetheless revered and worshiped, his name pronounced by the devoted with a hiccup of pure awe: Thomas, gulp, Pynchon. Fans even collect the few books for which he has given a dust-jacket blurb. Every word of the Master is precious.

Nonetheless, Pynchon has often been -- at least until "Inherent Vice" -- a writer more admired than loved. Such imposing epics as "Gravity's Rainbow," "Mason & Dixon" and the recent "Against the Day" daunt even the most rugged readers. Assaults on such Everests require not only the usual climbing gear -- pitons and belaying ropes and what all -- but also oxygen canisters and Sherpa guides, as well. These majestic works are more than worth the effort, but they aren't what most people would call page-turners or comfort books.

Which is just what "Inherent Vice" is. Imagine the cult film "The Big Lebowski" as a novel, with touches of "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential" thrown in for good measure. Imagine your favorite Raymond Chandler or James Crumley mystery retold as a hippie whodunit, set in Gordita Beach, Calif., at the very end of the 1960s. Imagine a great American novelist, one who is now a septuagenarian, writing with all the vivacity and bounce of a young man who has just discovered girls. Most of all, imagine sentences and scenes that are so much fun to read that you wish "Inherent Vice" were twice as long as it is. Imagine saying that about a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Of course, there have been short Pynchon books in the distant past, and this new one might be thought of as part of a California cycle that includes the novella-length "Crying of Lot 49" and "Vineland." But you don't need to have ever opened either of these, or even to remember the hippie days of yore, to just kick back and enjoy the smoke-filled psychedelic pages of "Inherent Vice." Here, lovingly mythologized -- okay, sentimentalized -- is California livin' on that long summer's day we call the '60s, when the Age of Aquarius was about to dawn and all that mattered were longboards and high surf and drugs and sex and rock-and-roll.

True, nothing then was ever quite that simple, except in our now faulty and selective memories. There was a lot of horror, too -- Vietnam, Nixon, urban riots, Charles Manson, assassinations -- and these form part of the backdrop of "Inherent Vice." And yet. As Wordsworth once wrote, and he wasn't even there: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!"

"Inherent Vice" opens just as any California private-eye novel should -- with a faint air of wistfulness and regret:

"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." She is Shasta Fay Hepworth, aspiring actress and current mistress of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. Doc is Doc Sportello, an aging hippie pushing 30, who now runs LSD Investigations, the initials standing for "Location, Surveillance, Detection." He and Shasta had once upon a time been lovers. He's never gotten over her. But you knew that.

Worried that she's been followed, a breathless Shasta hurriedly tells Doc about a scheme to kidnap Wolfmann. She's caught in the middle and needs help. But before she can go into all the details, Shasta disappears, and Doc finds that he's in the middle of something he doesn't understand at all. Even after a joint or two.

First, the long-haired private eye is visited by Tariq Khalil, a formidable black ex-con, who wants him to locate an old prison buddy, Glen Charlock, now a bodyguard for Shasta's very same sugar daddy. Then Doc, while exploring the massage parlor Chick Planet, is conked from behind and awakens to find that he's a murder suspect and that Wolfmann is either dead or kidnapped. Next, a blonde named Hope plaintively insists that her supposedly deceased husband, a sax player named Coy Harlingen, is still alive. And finally, a tough cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen warns our "hippie scum" hero to stop snooping around.

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