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Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ a Must-Read

Detective novel filled with exquisite detail, explosive energy

Sep. 15, 2009
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Are you sitting down?

Thomas Pynchon—post-surreal political hippie/punk slinger of prose full of history, hilarity, piss, vinegar and exquisite, often distracting detail—has written an old-fashioned detective novel, Inherent Vice (Penguin), and it’s less than a thousand pages long.

Are you still sitting down? It’s actually less than 400 pages long.

The place: Los Angeles.

Our protagonist: Larry “Doc” Sportello, licensed private investigator and unrepentant head.

The year: unclear until page 113, when we find Doc watching a Milwaukee Bucks game on TV, and Bucks star Lew Alcindor has changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so it must be 1971.

The immediate crimes: murder, possible kidnapping, extortion.

The bigger-picture crimes: a drug-and-“rehab” (read: reprogramming) trade, phony U.S. currency adorned by President Nixon’s face, said to be legal tender in some parts of Southeast Asia.

To quote Doc, something here is ungroovy—which is really saying something like the Velvelettes, because the “here” of Inherent Vice is a smog-filled, corruption-riddled, slightly zombified cityscape of disillusionment, fleeting friendships, cynicism, creeping executive-branch fascism, and out-in-the-open vigilante fascism, a place that stands as not just a monument to phoniness but a lurid advertisement for the false. Droning in the background: Reagan, Nixon, ’Nam, the Manson Family murders, Watts, COINTELPRO, sex merchants, shopping malls and the accelerating demise of rock ’n’ roll.

Pynchon enlivens this dismal post-post/slightly-south-of-Summer-of-Love setting with some of his renowned devices: cool characters with funny names [Sauncho Smilax (an attorney, of course), Buddy Tubeside (alternative medicine specialist, natch), Droolin’ Floyd Womack (you guessed it: R&B singer) and Doc’s best friend Denis (pronounced to rhyme with “penis”)]; wild neologisms like “stewardii” and “plasticratic yachtsfolk”; original song lyrics more plausible than ever; and cheap pop-culture reference points (“Dark Shadows” and “Gilligan’s Island” are quoted and deconstructed at length, and surf instrumental bands real and invented blare throughout).

What’s exciting and fresh about this book is that Pynchon uses it to provoke, inspire, anger and amuse with an economical, easy-to-follow narrative style not employed since his short stories of the 1960s. In a casual, conversational voice largely absent from his ornate masterpieces Mason & Dixon and Against the Day (although he makes sly reference to both herein), with dangling participles and end-of-sentence prepositions aplenty (not to mention a downright quirky way with punctuation and dialogue attribution), Pynchon lets his prosaic guard down, and the book explodes with energy.

Doc Sportello may be the closest we come to a Pynchon self-portrait. Utterly lovelorn, slightly drug-damaged, approaching an age 30 that feels like 50, master of the smart-assed comeback but slow—and in no hurry—to comprehend the big picture, Doc keeps himself busy making sure his more vulnerable and innocent associates are safe. Making money seems low on his list.

At first, Doc is the primary suspect in the murder of the ostensible bodyguard of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, who’s run off with Doc’s ex, one Shasta Fay Hepworth. Quickly sprung when it becomes impossible to pin the murder on such an honest, underpaid, undernourished—not to mention innocent—guy, Doc blows up at his L.A.P.D. nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen upon finding that Bigfoot has impounded Doc’s car:

[Bigfoot:] “I’ve upset you.”

[Doc:] “Nobody calls my car a murderer, man.”

A good-natured guy who drifted into the P.I. life because he perceived private dicks to be smarter, cooler and more principled than the police, Doc floats through some terrifying episodes involving white supremacist gangs, martial arts experts, sadistic psychiatrists and the truly complex Bigfoot, exhibiting infectious humor and surprisingly little paranoia, given his near-hourly cannabis consumption.

For every laugh in this book, and there are countless, there is a Cheshire Cat’s caveat that this story never really ends. Forty years after Inherent Vice takes place, corruption, crime and cruelty still run rampant in L.A., but a shred of tenderness remains, a morsel that Thomas Pynchon elevates to epic dimensions through wild imagination and death-defying dedication.

Are you still sitting down? Good, now get to readin’.


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