If you had asked me a couple of months ago which new book on my summer reading list was going to be the most sheer fun to read, I probably wouldn't have picked Inherent Vice. • Not that I don't love Thomas Pynchon's work. The first novel of his I read, back in 1974, was his masterwork Gravity's Rainbow, and it was one of a half-dozen life-changing books for me — utterly absorbing and unlike any other novel. • But Pynchon's books are demanding. His protean style, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from physics to pop culture, his intellectual rigor, his penchant for digression, his staggeringly complex plots and huge casts of characters — they all add up to books that require the reader to work. • Eager as I am to dive into every new novel from Pynchon, I never expect to zip through them. • Until Inherent Vice.
Here's how much fun this novel is: En route to a family reunion recently, I spent three stormy hours on the runway of the Philadelphia airport in a dinky commuter jet, stuck next to a guy I came to think of as Mr. Angry Man. But I was reading Inherent Vice, and I was having such a blast following Doc Sportello around Gordita Beach circa 1969 that I never even felt annoyed.
Pynchon has always been a happy poacher of pop lit genres — his last novel, Against the Day, was, among many other things, a survey of early 20th century genres like boys' adventure tales, exotic travelogues and more.
But Inherent Vice is unique in his body of work in that it more or less sticks to a single genre: the Southern California hard-boiled detective novel, as practiced by such writers as Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.
Not that its protagonist, Doc Sportello, is very hard-boiled. Poached is more like it, given Doc's fondness for marijuana and other mind-altering substances. Such substances are plentiful in Gordita Beach, a fictional version of the funky little beach towns that used to rim Los Angeles' western flank (in the days before real estate became a psychosis), offering cheap rent and endless waves to flocks of surfers and hippies.
Pynchon's personal life, of course, is notoriously mysterious, but some sources report he lived in one of those towns, Manhattan Beach, in the late '60s while he was writing Gravity's Rainbow. If he didn't, he's channeling such places and times miraculously well.
From its first sentence, Inherent Vice echoes classic detective novels, with its touch of cherchez le femme and hint of secrets buried in the past: "She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to."
"She," and there's always a "she," is Shasta Fay Hepworth, former four-year Class Beauty at Playa Vista High and Doc's lost love.
She needs his help, of course: "There's this guy." Doc guesses right away: "Gentleman of the straightworld persuasion," these being times when calling someone "straight" had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
Shasta's boyfriend is married, but that's not the half of it. Mickey Wolfmann is a major real estate mogul with some shady connections. Wolfmann's wife and her boyfriend are cooking up a scheme to take Mickey's money — and they're trying to get Shasta in on it.
Besides taking Shasta's case, Doc ambles to the aid of another dame in distress: Hope, the widow of Coy Harlingen, sax player for a legendary surfadelic band called the Boards. Coy is recently deceased from a heroin overdose — but Hope doesn't believe he's dead.
Doc goes looking for Mickey in a half-built upscale subdivision, passes out in a massage parlor called Chick Planet and wakes up in close proximity to the corpse of one of Mickey's bodyguards. That, and the fact that Mickey's gone missing, brings an old nemesis, LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, down on Doc like a ton of bricks, and we're off to the races.
Doc's two cases prove to be intertwined, of course, and both seem connected to an elusive entity called the Golden Fang. It might be a sailing ship with a dark past, or a questionable celebrity rehab center, or an Indochinese heroin cartel, or maybe a consortium of dentists.
But the Golden Fang may be more of a MacGuffin than a threat. The true horror that haunts the book's nostalgia for a golden moment in time is the Manson Family murders, which occurred just before the book's action and turned the peaceful hippie ethos inside out in one monstrous night. Doc, Bigfoot and others refer to them glancingly, as if they can't bear to look at them straight on.
There are other, larger, less definable things to fear as well: "Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up North, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?"
But Doc isn't all that good at concentrating, even on dire conspiracies, what with the inexplicable giant waves in the middle of the ocean that a surfer called Saint Flip has found, and the portrait of Thomas Jefferson in a local diner that chats with "selected dopers," and Jason Velveeta, the world's worst pimp.
And then there's Doc's pal Fritz, who's working on a little something called ARPAnet, some wild plan to hook up a bunch of computers in different places so they can all share information. Just another one of those crazy '60s hallucinations . . .
When you think about it, the tough detective novel is a natural form for Pynchon, given his longtime fictional obsessions with quests, paranoia and conspiracy, and the true nature of the American character. Inherent Vice makes rich use of the genre, as well as giving Pynchon plenty of opportunity for groaner puns and his beloved shaggy dog jokes (wait till you see what he does with Job 28:18), plus great swaths of flat-out beautiful, lyrical writing. And, despite its twist-and-turn plot, this is the most linear book Pynchon has ever published.
So, my nomination for best beach book (in more ways than one) of 2009? Bet you never thought it would be a Pynchon novel.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.