Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Hippie noir in 60s California.

Inherent Vice

The Penguin Press, 2009, 369 pages

Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon.

Private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.

It's been awhile since Doc has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say.

It's the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that "love" is another of those words going around at the moment, like "trip" or "groovy", except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite that, he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists....

Many of his fans describe this as "Pynchon Lite." It's certainly nowhere near the length of his weightier classics like V. or Gravity's Rainbow. It's also not as wild, dense, and layered as The Crying of Lot 49, which I loved. I was hoping to love Inherent Vice, another Pynchonesque psychedelic romp through California in the Sixties, but it's basically a hippie noir with really funky characters... a lot of funky characters.

The clock up on the wall, which reminded Doc of Elementary school back in the San Joaquin, read some hour that it could not possibly be. Doce waited for the hands to move, but they didn't, from which he deduced that the clock was broken and maybe had been for years. Which was groovy however because long ago Sortilege had taught him the esoteric skill of telling time from a broken clock. The first thing you had to do was light a joint, which in the Hall of Justice might seem odd, but surely not way back here--who knew, maybe even outside the jurisdiction of local drug enforcement--though just to be on the safe side he also lit a De Nobili cigar and filled the room with a precautionary cloud of smoke from the classic mafia favorite. After inhaling potsmoke for a while, he glanced up at the clock, and sure enough, it showed a different time now, though this could also be from Doc having forgotten where the hands were to begin with.

Yup, that's our protagonist, "Doc" Sportello, sole investigator of LSD Investigations, lighting up in city hall.

Doc goes down the rabbit hole when his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth, tells him that the wife of the billionaire she's dating is plotting to have him committed and she needs Doc's help. Pretty soon Doc is tangling with the LAPD, organized crime, black power arms dealers, real estate moguls, and a sinister group called the Golden Fang. Like in any noir, the intrepid PI gets hit over the head, harassed and set up by cops, captured and almost killed before escaping in a shootout, and of course, gets salaciously and repeatedly laid.

Pynchon goes wild with names and subplots. Loan sharks and prison gangs and real estate schemes and corrupt cops and drug dealers and rich runaways and Governor Reagan and mysterious ships. They are all over the place before he wraps them up in the last few chapters. It's a deft feat, but ultimately this was not Great American Novelist Pynchon or brilliant and freaky Pynchon who blows your mind; it was just world-famous author Pynchon writing a noir detective novel.

“Odd, yes, here in the capital of eternal youth, endless summer and all, that fear should be running the town again as in days of old, like the Hollywood blacklist you don't remember and the Watts rioting you do - it spreads, like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day. And then maybe some playful soul shows up with a bucketful of piranhas, dumps them in the pool, and right away they can taste the blood. They swim around looking for what's bleeding, but they don't find anything, all of them getting more and more crazy, till the craziness reaches a point. Which is when they begin to feed on each other.”

Verdict: Thomas Pynchon is very good, but despite some nice passages and memorable characters, I found it hard to keep track of all the plot threads in Inherent Vice. It's a funky but confusing novel with a kaleidoscope of characters and a noir plot on LSD.

Also by Thomas Pynchon: My review of The Crying of Lot 49.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, literary, mystery, reviews, thomas pynchon

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