Monday, August 17, 2009

Pynchon Lite

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press. 369 pages. $27.95.

From the author of such time-bending, globe-hopping, head-scratching multi-narrative intellectual extravaganzas as Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day, this rollicking, wisecracking, neo-noir dope thriller comes as a surprise. It’s the most linear and focused novel Thomas Pynchon has ever written and, if not the most rewarding, certainly one of the most fun.

Set in Los Angeles around 1970 -- when the dream of the 1960s has crashed and burned, and family values are being defined by the Brady Bunch on one end of the spectrum and the Mansons on the other -- it's a psychedelic free-for-all, a nostalgic dirge for the end of an era, and less of a spoof than a faithful, loving homage to a genre that perfectly suits Pynchon's world-view.

Here as in every Pynchon novel, there’s a fine line between paranoia and grim reality; conspiracy isn't so much theory as fact, and everyone sooner or later runs up against some omniscient force of corporate or government control that is all the more insidious because it's so deeply concealed.

This is actually not all that far from the shady moral environment occupied by the gumshoes in Hammett and Chandler, the lone cool cats who are all that stand between the dregs who break the laws and the dregs who make them. In their job, as Pynchon's laidback private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello puts it, paranoia is "a tool of the trade," the one that points you "in the direction you might not have seen to go."

Actually, laid-back is understating it, as Doc, the brains (so to speak) behind LSD Investigations (for “Location, Surveillance and Detection”) is a cross between Philip Marlowe and Gilligan, living on a mental isle perpetually engulfed in pot smoke and, as he's told at least once, way overdue for a checkup from Dr. Reality.

As in every hard-boiled tale from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown, the story starts with a visit from a woman. Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta is seeing a married guy named Mickey Wolfmann, a wealthy and eccentric Jewish real estate developer whose wife is trying to set him up for a stay in the loony bin so that she and her boyfriend can abscond with his dough. Given the fact that Wolfmann has hired the Aryan Brotherhood for protection, she may have a case.

Still, this being L.A. and this being Pynchon, such ties are hardly unusual, particularly where the drug trade is concerned, which is where the story leads once Wolfmann disappears and an Aryan brother turns up dead. Doc finds himself in the middle of a series of events where not only is everyone in bed with everyone else, but everyone is a player in a bigger struggle between the haves who run the system and the have-nots who get in their way. At the center of the mystery of Wolfmann’s disappearance is a mysterious cargo freighter, The Golden Fang, whose name more or less sums up Pynchon’s attitude toward capitalism.

Pynchon has put himself in something of a vice of his own with this book, by hard-boiling his style down to plot, seasoned as usual with silly songs, casual porn, jokes and popular culture references. It's a lark, yet at the same time you feel him holding back, keeping both his formidable imagination and his swing-for-the-bleachers prose style in check. His best novels are truly memorable; they leave behind a lot of evidence in your head that they were there. This one is fast food with an aftertaste of creaky, nostalgic, sentimental hippie politics.

It’s either the work of a writer who figured after all this time he needed a vacation from his usual cosmic concerns or one who is slumming, who wanted perhaps to prove to himself or his publisher that he can fill the cheap seats.

If that's the case, then it may well be that at the ripe old age of 72, America's master fabulist has written a kind of imperfect introduction to his world, a gateway drug to his previous novels and hopefully the (more impressive) ones yet to come.

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