I was oh for two with Thomas Pynchon books and figured that was enough to assume I just didn’t like his writing style, but two strong recommendations from friends for his 2009 novel Inherent Vice: A Novel, and seeing it available for $6 at a local B&N, were enough for me to give it a short. As much as I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow and just didn’t get The Crying of Lot 49, I loved Inherent Vice, which is a laugh-out-loud funny detective story and homage to/sendup of noir fiction, replete with the cultural allusions that mark all of Pynchon’s work, but in this case in a package that you can actually read, understand, and enjoy.
Doc Sportello is the detective, a private investigator in LA in the early 1970s, working out of the standard shabby office with the standard fetching secretary out front, but replacing the alcohol usage of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade with pot – and a lot of it, to the point where reality and hallucination start to blend for Doc and for the reader. The case walks in off the street, a woman who thinks her dead husband may not be dead after all, and as is par for the course in classic detective fiction, the superficial case opens the door to a broader conspiracy that involves crooked cops, organized crime, and a lot more pot. (That last part may not be standard for the genre.) Doc ends up knocked unconscious, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, in trouble with three or four different groups, and making a lot of wisecracks when his head is clear enough to permit it.
Nobody in Doc’s circle of friends and associates is remotely normal except perhaps his sort-of girlfriend Penny, who works in the local DA’s office and isn’t shy about using him as a chip to get something she wants from the feds. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho, is actually a marine lawyer whose comprehension of criminal law is about as clear as the marine layer, and who is obsessed with a ship of unclear provenance, the Golden Fang, that turns out to be significant in Doc’s case. His friend Denis – you pronounce it to rhyme with “penis” – is so THC- and other drug-addled that he provides some of the book’s funniest moments, one involving a waterbed, one involving a lost slice of pizza, and the other involving a television set. There’s a crazy former client, Doc’s ex-girlfriend (who is also tied up in the main case), the “masseuses,” the ridiculously-named feds (Flatweed and Borderline, or F&B like food and beverage?) …
…and the cop-antagonist, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who simultaneously bows to and blows up the stereotypical cop from all hard-boiled detective fiction, the thickheaded guy who gets in the way, hates the PI, always tries to arrest the PI for something, and ends up getting the collar thanks to the PI’s hard work. Bigfoot is big and thickheaded and doesn’t particularly care for Doc, but he’s far from the dumb or useless cop we typically get in the genre – he’s a character of some complexity, more so than any other character but Doc.
While the crimes at the center of the book are involved and take some time for Doc to sort out, to the extent that he does actually sort much of it out, Pynchon chose not to employ the labyrinthine prose and highly allusive style that made Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, an unreadable mess. You may not entirely follow Doc’s thinking or his actions, but that’s only when he can’t, because he’s stoned. That much mind-alteration can make users paranoid, and Doc is paranoid … but they’re really after him, too, and his paranoia tends to serve him pretty well. Pynchon does nothing to clearly distinguish the hallucinatory sequences from reality, but it’s also not that hard to tell when the haze has set in, and Doc gets some time on the page to sort these out himself in case you’re still confused.
Inherent Vice speaks to me because I love the genre that Pynchon is both satirizing and honoring; Doc is hard-boiled to an extent, except that he’s walking around in huarache sandals and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, gives his hair a sort of perm at the start of the book that takes much of any hard edge off the character. But more than anything else, Pynchon has finally taken the humor that his adherents have long found in his books and put it in a format that the rest of us can appreciate. The book is flat-out funny in multiple ways – situational humor, clever banter, the absurdity of most of what Denis does, and even comedy around sex that comes off as, if not exactly highbrow, less lowbrow than most attempts at sexual humor too. Stoner humor doesn’t always hit the mark because much of it just makes the stoner out to be stupid, but stupid alone isn’t funny. It has to be a certain kind of stupid – in the stoner’s case an absurd twist on it, much in the way that Andy on Parks & Recreation was funny because his lack of intelligence manifested itself in these wildly illogical paths in his mind. Marijuana use isn’t funny, kids; it’s hilarious.
Making the book so readable means that the things Pynchon has always done well, like cultural references, are suddenly accessible to the rest of us. Pynchon loves to make up names – silly character names (Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, the loan shark Adrian Prussia who happens to have the initials that stand for Accounts Payable), but also band names (Spotted Dick), radio stations, songs, movies (Godzilligan’s Island), and so on, and they get sillier as the novel goes on. Many names refer to plants (trillium, flatweed, japonica, charlock, smilax), although if there’s a broader significance to that than that marijuana is also a plant, I missed it. Doc is obsessed with the actor John Garfield, who played hard-boiled characters and refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which also comes up when Dalton Trumbo’s name is broached; the whole post-McCarthy era looms large as then-President Nixon was trying again to crack down on “subversive” elements, which is a small part of the novel’s main plot line. We even get Doc’s parents, which you never get in a detective novel, worrying about their son’s career and bachelorhood and providing one last bit of comic relief before the novel closes.
I’ve since seen some contemporary reviews of the book that were disappointed that it wasn’t vintage Pynchon, and one that cited a lack of suspense (that reviewer had to be unfamiliar with the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction), but I haven’t read a novel in some time that hit on this many cylinders for me. It’s phenomenally funny, very smart, and yet at its core is a very well-crafted detective story. Maybe I will have to try some more Pynchon after all.
Next up: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.