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Arts and Entertainment

The Bong Goodbye

Thomas Pynchon skewers America's political history in his endlessly entertaining variation on the detective yarn

Deanna Staffo

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/19/2009

Let's get one thing nice and sparkling clear: Thomas Pynchon's new Inherent Vice (Penguin Press), his seventh novel, isn't the best work of his career. That honor goes to 1997's verbally ambitious, corkscrewily plotted, tangentially dense, and profoundly touching Mason & Dixon--though it's understandable if those same arguments support the case for his National Book Award-winning, sex-and-death-equating Gravity's Rainbow, which came out in 1973. Both M&D and Rainbow are imaginative doorstops of pyrotechnic postmodern storytelling, confabulations of the past that offer prismatic considerations of the present. After those two leviathans, though, parsing through the rest of Pynchon is really a matter of hair-splitting among his diehard fans. His 1963 debut V. remains a blithe display of literary irreverence and invention from a then-26-year-old first-time novelist, presenting still evolving displays of an information-dense, pop-culture savvy, and anti-linear storyteller. The 1984 short-story collection Slow Learner is but an immature snapshot of the stylist he was to become, and is better known for the candid, quasi-autobiographical Pynchon-penned forward. His 1990 Vineland drops in on aging hippies in Northern California as the conservative 1980s put the final nail in the coffin of the 1960s. And 2006's Byzantine Against the Day felt like a return to the VistaVision Pynchon of M&D and Rainbow, but despite its historical breath, sweeping scope, and 1,000-page heft, it felt a little light on his usual intellectual oomph.

Which leaves 1966's The Crying of Lot 49, Spartan at fewer than 200 pages, as Pynchon's most accessible, readable, and familiar novel, packing in his mix of pop culture and arcane history, American ennui, musical allusions, and a serpentine plot. It was certainly his most entertaining novel--until Vice. Like 49, Vice takes place in a Los Angeles fully charged by the '60s. And like 49--rather like all of Pynchon's novels, in fact--Vice starts out as a mystery, with a character searching for something/somebody. Unlike any previous Pynchon work, Vice fully embraces genre--the pulp-fiction detective yarn. And in doing so it's difficult to tell if the genre is merely pliable enough to accommodate all of Pynchon's literary whims or if the now 72-year-old author has basically been riffing on this form--searches for objects/people that become searches for knowledge as the ultimate truth can never be located--his entire career.

Vice begins in typical hard-boiled fashion, as a femme fatale goes to see a gumshoe about a man in a noirish Los Angeles. In Pynchonland, that Los Angeles includes its coastal beach communities, and the time period is the late spring of 1970, when the Knicks take the Lakers the full seven of the NBA finals and the Manson trials for the Tate-LaBianca murders loomed. Ronald Reagan was in the Sacramento governor's mansion, fellow California dreamer Richard Nixon was in the White House, and half a year earlier he appealed to the silent majority to support his efforts to win the war in Southeast Asia. Drugs abound, as some turn to them for enlightened recreation, some for financial gain, and the hip and the square regard each other with equal suspicion.

That femme fatale is former Southern California surfer girl named Shasta Fay Hepworth, who hires her former beau, gumsandal Larry "Doc" Sportello, a surfer turned skiptracer turned private eye, who has dropped some acid in his days and still likes to spark up marijuana when the time is right, which is roughly every hour or so. Shasta is worried that the people hanging around her latest lover, married real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, are brewing something fishy. She just wants Doc to keep an eye on him. The next day, ex-con soul brother Tariq Khalil hires Doc to track down a friend of his from the joint, an Aryan Brotherhood member named Glen Charlock, who owes Tariq money. A lot of money.

In true detective-story fashion--and asymptotic Pynchon plotline fashion--these two separate jobs appear to crash together when Doc visits an under-construction new development (owned by Wolfmann, who employs Charlock as one of many bodyguards) where, while he's momentarily distracted by two employees of the Chick Planet massage parlor who offer him a gratis demonstration of the Pussy-Eater's Special, Doc gets himself knocked unconscious and wakes up to find out Wolfmann is missing and Doc is the No. 1 suspect for Charlock's murder in the eyes of Det. Bigfoot Bjornsen, a cop who has no problem hassling longhaired reefer types, with their free love and get-out-of-Vietnam attitudes.

What ensues is a Raymond Chandler-meets-Elmore Leonard chain of rippling leads as Doc spliffs up and ferrets out connections between Charlock and Wolfmann, which Pynchon turns into a feed-your-head rabbit hole of a plot that he dots with a junkie surf-band saxophonist turned government counterintelligence agent, zombie rock 'n' rollers living in Topanga Canyon, a pair of same-sex-loving showtunes-singing Aryan Brother ex-cons (one with a swastika tattoo on his head), proto-turbonerds jacked into ARAPnet, plain suited-G-men, an underground criminal syndicate of dentists (?!?) perhaps named for/after/huh? a mysterious seafaring vessel called the Golden Fang, ex-military private citizen groups of mobilized and armed "peace"-keeping counter-revolutionaries, corrupt Los Angeles Police Department officers in bed with a dapper loan shark turned political assassin, Las Vegas odds makers who takes action on events in the newscycle, and a wealth of groovy zipless chicks, radical beachcombers, and enough rock music, old movies, TV shows, and Los Angeles-specific cultural references to keep obsessives unpacking them on the Inherent Vice wiki page (inherent-vice.pynchonwiki.com/wiki) for months.

That it all plays out in recognizable Pynchon flourishes is what's most surprising. He effortlessly slips in all his familiar devices: character and idea bleedovers from other novels, anachronistic puns (LAPD's Public Disorder Intelligence Division--aka the PDIDdies), gift for bluntly florid description (the real-looker of a doctor's assistant where Doc shares office space sports a mini-skirt outfit that was "not so much an actual nurse uniform as a lascivious commentary on one"), and a still sharp gift for calmly revealing metaphor. At one point a character experiences a Lot 49-ian moment that "revelation is in progress all around" that he sanguinely expresses as ". . . if some stereo needle had been lifted and set back down on some other sentimental oldie on the compilation LP of history."

But Inherent Vice--late in the book the title gets explained as a maritime insurance term concerning the unavoidable (e.g, eggs in transit break), which Pynchon unspools into metaphysical vertigo such that "[built] into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt"--plays by genre rules, and Doc himself is the most recognizable tool of that trade. He's Philip Marlowe meets Jeff Lebowski, Sam Spade by way of Moondoggie, John Garfield (whom Doc idolizes) crossed with Terry Southern, and Pynchon lets him straddle the revolution-for-the-hell-of-it 1960s and paranoid 1970s. He's turned-on enough to know all is not right in the state of America, though Altamont and Tate-LaBianca certainly peeled the innocence right off the children of flowers. But surely there are other options than stiffer law enforcement and opportunistic land grabs and continuation of the same-old American same-old to clean up the unsightly and make way for a brighter, shinier future.

Such 1960s specificity is easy to dismiss as nostalgic whiplash--see also: the ongoing 40th anniversary of Woodstock cottage industries (it's merely serendipitous that two Vice name drops, Leslie van Houten and the Black Guerrilla Family, are in the current local media cycle again)--but Pynchon has never settled for letting setting be a mere evocation of an era. The modern detective fiction is, after all, as American as murder and Manifest Destiny, thanks to Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. And how Doc sees the world not only gives Lot 49, Inherent Vice, and Vineland the feel of a trilogy--as the Observer's Sarah Churchwell has already noted, taken together they offer an alternate history of California from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s (and, given Vineland's organized labor story-within-the-story, from the 1930s to the mid-1980s)--but further focuses the political temperament than runs through Pynchon's entire oeuvre. From Rainbow to Against, Vineland to Vice, the machinations and decisions of governments and corporations, politicians and businessmen, who put profits ahead of people and regard ambitious individualistic greed above all, sends historical ripples of confusing calamity through the lives of the rather ordinary, if creatively named, men and women who populate Pynchon novels, which explore their lives via grassy-knollish cultural-qua-political tangents that wind historical fact around speculative fictions and knit these stories into ribald quests that never quite find what they're looking for.

It's an idea that lends Pynchon's smarty, witty, and above all intoxicated-with-life works a guarded undercurrent, as if all the historical, psychological, scientific, ethnographic, musical, cinematic, cultural--and more--detail he artfully shoehorns into his fiction hides a bitter aftertaste: the sneaking realization that a mind this omnivorously learned and creatively armed looks around the country in which he lives and sees but a superficial layer of silly distractions thinly concealing a savage appetite for self destruction. Perhaps his now legendary spotlight avoidance is a hard-earned survival instinct. Perhaps the long-running evidence of his joy in music, which gleefully peppers Vice, is one of his few aesthetic pleasures. Perhaps. Whatever the case, it's difficult not to read some of the passages here, which can admittedly sound like sentimental fondness for a lost era, as elegies for a vision of this 200-year-old experiment called America that could have been:

Out there, all around them to the last fringes of occupancy, were Toobfreex at play in the video universe, the tropic isle, the Long Beach Saloon, the Starship Enterprise, Hawaiian crime fantasies, cute kids in make-believe living rooms with invisible audience to laugh at everything they did, baseball highlights, Vietnam footage, helicopter gunships and firefights, and midnight jokes, and talking celebrities, and a slave girl in a bottle, and Arnold the pig, and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness. . . .

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