- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

By Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press HC, $27.95, 384 pages

Few private investigators in any brand of fiction faced the kinds of roadblocks Larry “Doc” Sportello encounters in Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” (Did Columbo ever wade through an armada of acid flashbacks to solve a crime or save the innocent?)

Thomas Pynchon sets his latest novel at the tail end of the turbulent Sixties, a time when the Vietnam War still raged, hippies all but ruled sections of California’s coast and the mantra “trust no one” never sounded so prescient.

The Summer of Love’s promise is about to be permanently spoiled. What better terrain for Mr. Pynchon, an author eager to get his hands dirty with conspiratorial tales that creep under the skin of American society?

Mr. Pynchon’s conduit this time is Doc Sportello, a slightly reformed hippie turned private eye (for LSD Investigations) working in Gordita Beach. An old flame named Shasta shuffles back into Doc’s life as the novel opens, but the aging party girl isn’t seeking a reconciliation. Shasta wants Doc’s help with her new love, a billionaire real estate tycoon named Mickey Wolfmann. He’s married, but that doesn’t even hint at all the complications inherent in their romance. Wolfmann soon goes missing, and Doc decides to follow up on the case out of a sense of loyalty to an ex-love.

Mr. Pynchon assembles the core plot within the first four pages, and soon there are a procession of story feints, turns and about-faces. Mr. Pynchon’s novels tend to be knotty affairs, but, here, more than in previous novels, the drugged-out passages and zoned-out players might make readers blurry-eyed. Doc, it turns out, will need some help to solve an increasingly muddled mystery. Fortunately, he’s got an army of exes, fellow hippies and even a lawyer, of sorts, ready to lend a hand. But the folks behind Mickey’s disappearance are just as connected, and their ties to more legitimate forces leave Doc at a serious disadvantage.

More key players soon disappear, some permanently, while others come back from the dead. All the while, Doc uses his passion for surf rock and a stoner’s brand of ESP to stalk the few clues that turn up. On more than one occasion Doc asks himself, “is this really happening, or is this another flashback?”

“Inherent Vice” delivers the expected societal touchstones from the era — rampant drug use, a smattering of free love and references to popular culture staples like “Gilligan’s Island.” The effect can be suffocating at times. How is it possible for the burned-out stoners who populate these pages to name-drop the Skipper and Ginger with such alacrity?

Mr. Pynchon stands on more solid ground while summoning the spirit of cop author Joseph Wambaugh, leveraging the latter’s humorously cynical take on the LAPD. Someone like Bigfoot, a barnstorming cop who has it in for Doc, seems stripped directly from one of Mr. Wambaugh’s yarns. But Mr. Pynchon takes Bigfoot to places the more staid author dare not tread, and the Doc-Bigfoot relationship ends up as one of “Vice’s” richer subplots.

Doc assumes the anti-authoritative pose Mr. Pynchon has all but perfected over decades in fiction. He’s a bedraggled hero for some confusing times, but even if he tokes up in every other scene his moral compass more or less points north. The same cannot be said for most of the characters floating through “Vice,” particularly those on the, ahem, right side of the law. In Mr. Pynchon’s warped lens, even dentists come off badly.

The author wraps his serio-comic story in a relatively conventional fashion, but it’s a testament to his narrative control that he could steer the tale toward a satisfying finale. In the end, “Inherent Vice” emerges as a deeply cynical yet amusing snapshot of the Woodstock generation’s final days in the sun.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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