Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press

Reviewed by Katherine Tomlinson

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel finds the author in a playful mood. At 384 pages (roughly one-third the size of his last book, 2006’s Against the Day), Inherent Vice has a narrative that’s contained in both plot and place. As a result, Inherent Vice may very well be a gateway novel to the writer’s earlier work, a sort of literary amuse bouche before a reader digs into the narrative feast that is Gravity’s Rainbow or V.

The story begins when perpetually stoned detective Larry (Doc) Portello is asked by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, to foil a plan to kidnap the billionaire land developer she’s in love with or at least, sleeping with. In today’s romantic shorthand you would say, “It’s complicated.” Those complications include the billionaire’s wife, her lover and a whole lot of other people who wouldn’t mind seeing Mickey Wolfmann disappear, along with his latest development, a beachfront monstrosity called “Channel View Estates.”

Doc’s Aunt Reet, who is making a killing in real estate, has nothing but contempt for Mickey’s planned community, which she calls a “chipboard horror.” Reet is hooked in to both the present and the future—she’s way ahead of the curve on computers—and she urges caution when dealing with Mickey and the neo-Nazi types he has surrounding him. One of the scariest of the hangers-on in the billionaire’s entourage is a cop with acting ambitions named Bigfoot Bjornsen. Doc has encountered him before and is not eager to meet him again.

Meanwhile, a guy named Tariq shows up in Doc’s office (which he shares with an amphetamine-dispensing Dr. Feelgood and his fetish-nurse) claiming he wants Doc’s help getting money from an Aryan Brother cellie who did a bit of work with him and then took off with both of their money. The AB is named Glen and it turns out one of his freelance gigs is working as a bodyguard for none other than, Mickey Wolfmann.

Tariq used to roll with a set called the Artesia Crips and when he got out of prison he went looking for them, only to find their turf had been transformed into Channel View Estates so Tariq’s got a bone to pick with Mickey, as well as Glen.

When someone ends up dead, Bjornsen decides Doc’s a good fit for a frame and that’s when things get really complicated and Doc’s lawyer shows up. True, his attorney, Sauncho Smilax, is a maritime lawyer who doesn’t really know much about criminal law, but then, Doc never really pays him so somehow the relationship works.

Doc is baffled by the changing times and finds it easiest to filter life through a marijuana haze. As he collides with reality and strange and implausible coincidences, he finds himself contemplating mysteries that go far beyond the question of what’s going on with the “Wolfmann”.

Even the minor characters—like Doc’s friend Denis, who orders boysenberry yogurt on his pizza when he’s stoned or actor Jonathan (Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows) Frid, who has a lounge show popular with the Rat Pack—get at least one moment to step out from the ensemble for their star turn and each makes his or her moment memorable.

Real-life characters ranging from Charles Manson to former D.A. Evelle Younger, rub up against Pynchon’s fictional creations and the result is a rollicking neo-noir filled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll with an emphasis on the drugs and the rock. Pynchon has created his own L.A. mix tape here and the playlist definitively answers the question: Beatles or the Stones? (Pynchon, it turns out, is more Jagger than John).

Los Angeles is also a central character in the story and Pynchon’s portrait of a city on the brink of paranoia is both affectionate and horrific. The years of free love have curdled with the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends, and as the new decade dawns, there’s been a shift in the zeitgeist. Doc senses conspiracy behind every curtain and is freaked out when a friend tells him about something called ARPA-net, a linked network of computers that might one day be a world-wide-web.

Doc’s motto might as well be, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” but at the end of this hilariously twisted tale of love and greed, he’s the one having the last stoned laugh. As Doc would say, “this book is a trip”, and that’s high praise.

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