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Beneath the Neon, Hidden Master Emerges From the Surf

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 6, 2009

INHERENT VICE

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.

Instead, Doc goes to call on Mrs. Wolfmann:

"As if auditioning for widowhood, Sloane Wolfmann strolled in from poolside wearing black spike-heeled sandals, a headband with a sheer black veil, and a black bikini of negligible size made of the same material as the veil." Before long Sloane sidles up to her visitor, "close enough for her to be seized and violated, a thought which unavoidably crossed Doc's mind, taking its time, in fact, and more than once looking back and winking."

But the sexy housemaid Luz interrupts and soon Doc is back among his various druggy friends -- the "stewardii" Lourdes and Motella, a surfer who speaks of gigantic waves out in the Pacific where there should be no such waves, a clairvoyant named Sortil├Ęge obsessed with the image of sunken Lemuria rising from the sea, a bounty-hunter who has just discovered the uses of ARPAnet -- the precursor to the Internet -- and a marine lawyer named Sauncho, who tells Doc lurid stories about an evil ship called the Golden Fang. But the Golden Fang may also be a criminal syndicate, or maybe it's even something else. . . . Sauncho does tend to doper conspiracy logic, even when watching television commercials, like the old classic about the dapper, well-dressed Charlie the Tuna:

" 'It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, desperate to show he's got good taste, except he's also dyslexic so he gets "good taste" mixed up with "taste good," but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be a StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won't be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it. . . .' 'Saunch, wow, that's . . .' 'It's been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea but no Tuna of the Farm?' 'Um . . . ' Doc actually beginning to think about this.

" 'And don't forget,' Sauncho went on to remind him darkly, 'that Charles Manson and the Vietcong are also named Charlie.' "

Throughout, Pynchon keeps up the rush of quips and sexual encounters and increasingly complicated plot threads, nearly all of them paying homage to traditional hard-boiled fiction. Wherever our tripping hero goes he meets bikers, mystics and miniskirted knockouts, including various "ladies of the evening and ladies of the later shifts." Doc is our old friend the tarnished knight of the mean streets, a sucker for losers down on their luck. He even flies to Las Vegas to help a young woman who is madly, sadly, in the sexual thrall of one Puck Beaverton, notable for the swastika tattoo on his head:

"She had that lovelorn look on her face. Doc had already deduced that he could be Mick Jagger, pay fees in the range of six figures per fleeting smile, even give up watching the Lakers, and nothing he did would make the least impression -- for this chick it was Puck Beaverton or nobody."

But what has happened to Shasta? Is Wolfmann alive or dead? What does the Los Angeles Police Department have to do with the Golden Fang? Pynchon does finally solve all the riddles, but they hardly matter. On any page of "Inherent Vice" you'll pause to smile over a simile or pun or a bittersweet description:

"Inside, the woman at the front counter gave Doc the impression of having been badly treated in some divorce settlement. Too much makeup, hair styled by somebody who was trying to give up smoking, a minidress she had no more idea of how to carry than a starlet did a Victorian gown. He wanted to say, 'Are you okay?' "

As often with Pynchon, his jokiness recalls that of the smartest kid in sixth grade who is also the class clown. But I love his humor (even the flurry of allusions to "Gilligan's Island"). An automobile collision emporium is called Resurrection of the Body. Two bikers are named Aubrey and Thorndyke. The Price of Wisdom is a vegetarian restaurant located on the second floor above a joint called Ruby's (see Job 28:18: "The price of wisdom is above rubies"). An ultra-rich Californian is said to be "looking tanned and fit, and as if somebody had just run a floor buffer all over his face." But great humor always verges on heartbreak: Talking of lost love, a woman tells Doc, "As one who's been down that particular exit ramp, you can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you've got to get back up onto the freeway again."

"Inherent Vice" may not be the Great American Novel, but it's certainly a Great American Read -- a terrific pastiche of California noir, wonderfully amusing throughout (and hard to quote from in a family newspaper because of the frequent use of, uh, colorful spoken language) and a poignant evocation of the last flowering of the '60s, just before everything changed and passed into myth or memory:

"Sunrise was on the way, the bars were just closed or closing, out in front of Wavos everybody was either at the tables along the sidewalk, sleeping with their heads on Health Waffles or in bowls of vegetarian chili, or being sick in the street, causing small-motorcycle traffic to skid in the vomit and so forth. It was late winter in Gordita."

Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com-- appears each Thursday in Style.

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