Thomas Pynchon is without a doubt the grand white whale of the American Literary scene—a writer of Melvilleian and Dickensian scale who vanishes as soon as he appears. No one has interviewed him in years. No one knows what he looks like. He does not do book-signings or publicity of any sort, and perhaps because of this, he has a fiercely loyal cult surrounding his quirky novels. The publication of Against the Day in 2006—his longest and most complex book, surpassing both Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Mason & Dixon (1997)—made me wonder if Pynchon’s books were ever actually supposed to be read by people other than university professors. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) was the closest I could offer as an (more or less readable; possibly comprehensible) introductory volume to the Pynchon opus, with the short stories in Slow Learner (1984) being a close, but less desirable second. The publication of Inherent Vice, however, proves that Pynchon can be more than a head-twisting, multisyllabic keyboard-smasher, whose very presence on the title page requires access to a few dictionaries in different languages as well as the good old 23-volume OED. The wacky humor, mathematics, the occult and cultural references are all there, but this time it’s in a much shorter, more legible form—a detective story created for the stoner in all of us.
It’s the beginning of the 1970s—the idealism of the 1960s is on its last legs; Charles Manson has just been arrested attempting to make hell come to earth—and the age of paranoia (and the rise of R. M. Nixon) is about to begin. Larry “Doc” Sportello is contacted by his “ex-old lady,” Shasta, to protect her new beau, Mickey Wolfmann—a real-estate developer lacking in morality, with an abundance of money and protection provided by a group of neo-Nazis—from his wife, who she thinks is trying to scheme him out of his money. No sooner does Shasta ask Doc to find Mickey than a man named Tariq asks Doc to track down one of Mickey’s bodyguards, Glen Charlock. By the time Doc gets on Glen’s trail, Glen is dead and both Shasta and Mickey are missing. In the fashion of true hippie logic, everything is connected to everything else, and some weird references to the Golden Fang (a boat owned by a group of dentists with a Hollywood past) keep popping up every three seconds, sparking both fear and confusion in the characters. Doc searches for his ex-girlfriend, her lover, and everything and everyone else under the sun. Surrounded by stoners, dopers, thieves and lawyers (perhaps, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I repeat myself with the latter two mentions?) Doc tries to get a straight answer out of everyone while trying to avoid having the police detective/moonlighting actor Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson cart him in for drug violations. Stumbling around as a gumshoe, perpetually stoned off his ass, Doc would not be the choice for a leading man in any typical detective story. But in Pynchon’s hands, he is given just enough of an IQ and functioning memory skills to solve (most of) the case—and come off as more than a caricature.
Even though the cases Doc investigates never completely leave the page, there are several moments when the story takes a back-seat to long descriptions, reminiscences of being stoned while watching old Hollywood movies in late-night syndication, generalizations about hippie culture and surfer music, and nightmares about the Nixon presidency and the CIA. There is a lot to latch on to here, and a lot of music (both real and fictional) appearing, sung by the characters and playing on the radio. There is a sense of almost constant media saturation, with references to famous stars and directors popping up left and right. These references alone are so torrential that there is in fact a special wiki for Inherent Vice (as well as for all other Pynchon works) at www.pynchonwiki.com. One can get bogged down in these references, and there is often the feeling that you are not quite in on the joke, but never fear, read on, there is something for everyone in the great show of Pynchonland.
Pynchon is without a doubt the master of paranoia in this novel. Everyone (and I really do mean everyone) is suspicious of everyone else. Most of the time, this is justifiable, especially in Doc’s case. The mysticism of religious cults sprouting up in L.A. at the time, combined with the general “bad vibes” resonating from the Manson case, leave everyone reeling and looking around for some kind of escape. Most turn to drugs of varying levels of hardness, some look to yoga or grotesque diets. But in spite of all of this darkness and escapism on the characters’ parts, the book is not a dark, stark look at the hippie years. Instead, it is a rollicking, outrageous and hilarious romp. It is by far one of the strongest novels I have ever read and one of the strangest detective novels I have ever read as well. Pynchon’s skills as a detective novelist are equal to Raymond Chandler’s—confusing, complex, intoxicating and delicious, a crime novel that will keep you begging for more; though Chandler was more concerned about the crime, Pynchon is more concerned with the story. The book’s plot and pace mean that The Crying of Lot 49 will no longer be the most-read Pynchon novel (the one most claimed to have been read is Gravity’s Rainbow) and hopefully it will help Pynchon get the broad and diverse audience he deserves.