Author: Thomas Pynchon

Penguin, 2009

Best ebook deal: Diesel eBooks (really pricey, though)

Filed under: Literary, Mystery

Pynchon’s latest novel follows stoner detective Doc Sportello on his quest to find a missing millionaire somewhere in L.A., circa 1970, and to discover the nefarious mysteries behind the secret… something, the Golden Fang (it might be a gang, a ghoul, or just a boat).

Doc’s a great character, and real fun to follow. He’s got a slow but sharp tongue, a weakness for women and pot, and a lackadaisically acute way of investigating. The mystery he unravels, on the other hand, doesn’t make much of an impact.

If, like me, you want to read Pynchon, but you get intimidated by the likes of Mason & Dixon, this is a pretty good bet. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, no-nonsense detective novel’s plot.

Let me say this before I go any further: I’m a big fan of Pynchon, but not a big reader of him, if you get my meaning. (I’m one of the corpses whose parts you’ll find caught in the teeth-like rocks off the coast of Gravity’s Rainbow.) I think Pynchon’s a genius who’s often too smart for his merely mortal readers to keep up.

When I heard about Inherent Vice, I was hoping it would be a Pynchon novel I could fully wrap my head around. And it is. It’s much simpler than his doorstop masterpieces, and I was able to keep most (a simple majority) of the plot threads and characters straight without referring to notes.

Pynchon’s Dickensian penchant for filling his books with characters is on full view in Vice: for every plot point, several new characters are introduced and each is given a baroque appellation (Jason Velveeta, Japonica Fenway, Trillium Fortnight). In reviewing Pynchon’s previous novels, critics have complained that the sheer number of his characters rob the individuals of depth, and to a certain extent that’s true in Vice. The dozens of minor characters who appear for only a scene or two stretch believability as far as how much information one old stoner detective’s brain can plausibly contain.

And there’s another effect this causes in a mystery. At the climax, there are probably fifty characters we’ve been introduced to, and so fifty possible suspects. So the effect of the final revelation is less, “It was that guy!” and more, “Oh, it was that guy. Who’s he again?”

As far as the story, the combination of gross population and relatively limited real estate (369 pages) means that Pynchon doesn’t sink his teeth into individual scenes as much as I’d like. When he does, though, he’s still one of the best in the business. Pynchon has developed and refined the ellipsis punchline to great effect. For example:

“Well, but . . . How would I forget something like that?”

“Grass and who knows what else, Doc.”

“Hey, come on, I’m only a light smoker.”

“Oh? How many joints a day, on average?”

“Um . . . have to look in the log. . . .”

Doc is always entertaining, with his whimsical, absent-minded style of living, and his ability to always make room for a lustful thought:

They checked into a two-room unit in back … with a fridge, hot plate, air-conditioning, cable TV and two king-sized water beds with leopard-print sheets. “Far out,” said Doc, “I wonder if these vibrate.” They didn’t. “Bummer.”

And Pynchon’s prose is still as sharp as ever, alloyed throughout with hard-boiled and hippie:

The state liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles were coming unstuck, is how dry the air was. Liquor-store owners could be filling those bottles with anything anymore. Jets were taking off the wrong way from the airport, the engine sounds were not passing across the sky where they should have, so everybody’s dreams got disarranged, when people could get to sleep at all.

As far as plot, I’m not quite sure what to tell you. There’s Aryan Brotherhoods and crooked cops, runaway girlfriends and drug deals, murders and assassinations, basically a wide assortment of various stuff for Doc to wend his way through.

Vice works better as an ensemble stoner adventure comedy than a mystery, but if that’s what you’d like to read, it’s a pretty damn good one.

Similar Books: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Donald E. Westlake also does comic crime novels, though not quite so literary (and under his own name; the Richard Stark books aren’t so funny). Also, I was often reminded of The Big Lebowski. Doc and the Dude share a similar working style.