Essay by Ted Gioia

I must have run into this Pynchon fellow back when
he was working on
Gravity’s Rainbow. The reclusive
author was living in Manhattan Beach and haunting
the coastline of the South Bay of Los Angeles. During
the same period Manhattan Beach and nearby Hermosa
Beach were my teenage homes away from home, and
the places where I hung out—Either/Or Bookstore,
the Lighthouse, Zeppies Pizza,
Taco Bill’s—were just the sort
of storefronts to attract the
custom of a counterculture sort
like Mr. Pynchon.

I have long wondered which of those
beach bums was the eccentric post-
modern novelist. Was he there
watching the great Buzz Swartz and
Matt Gage dominate the strand
volleyball scene?  Hell, maybe he
is Matt Gage—they look enough alike. Or was he seated
next to me at the Lighthouse, checking out Rahsaan Roland
Kirk’s sax heroics? Or should I believe my friend’s
insistence that the erudite gentlemen who dominated
the conversation at a book discussion group at the local
beach library was in fact the author of
Vineland and V?

Now after reading
Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s late-vintage
detective-as-stoner novel, I am all the more convinced
that this author was shadowing me all that time. The story
is set in Gordita Beach (a stand-in for Manhattan Beach)
in April and May of 1970, and is immersed in the
surfadelic culture of the period. Yes, the Lighthouse
appears here, as do dozens of other places where I might
have crossed paths with the secretive Mr. P.

This is more than a novel about the beach; it is also—
uncharacteristically for this often challenging author—a
book you could bring to the beach for an entertaining read
amidst the sand and sun. The plot moves with great speed;
by page 25, the reader has already enjoyed a dose of sex,
murder, drugs and rock-and-roll. But there is plenty more
of all of these to come. Before
Inherent Vice comes to its
wipeout of a conclusion, you will have encountered enough
narcotics to keep a Columbian cartel busy for a year, and so
many corpses that Thomas Nogouchi needs to call a temp
agency for backup support.

Doc Sportello is the hippie private investigator at the
center of these strange happenings. Doc’s track record is
spotty at best. He probably commits more crimes than he
solves. His memory and mental skills might once have
been first-rate, but that was about ten thousand reefers
ago. Nowadays he is lucky if he doesn’t have a
hallucinatory flashback at the worst possible moment.
Even when he delivers the goods, he rarely gets paid.
In short, he is more attuned to the karmic valence than
the criminal elements surrounding him.

Yet people come to Doc rather than go to the police.
This gives him access to loads of secret info. He knows
about a strange smuggling outfit called the Golden Fang,
a surf sax player who died from an overdose then came
back to life, a real estate developer with strange plans for
personal redemption, a loan shark who can get away with
murder, and a host of other conspiracies, shake-downs,
put-ons, and mix-ups. All these plot elements somehow
fit together—if just barely. By the time you get the finish
line of
Inherent Vice you have SoCal conspiracy so broad-
based it makes
Chinatown look like a Paris-Hilton-overnight-
in-the-slammer offense.

Fans of Pynchon know how meticulously he researches
his period writings. Scholars have demonstrated that
Pynchon immersed himself in the London newspapers
of the WWII-era while writing
Gravity’s Rainbow, tossing
out enough throwaway clues hither and thither to keep a
whole generation of tweed-coated academics busy.
Inherent
Vice
reveals a similar degree of deep research. The news
events of the Spring of 1970—the impending Charles
Manson trial, the Lakers-Knicks series, various Nixon
and Kissinger theatrics—simmer away in the background
here, along with a plethora of geographical and cultural
minutiae. Seymour hosts the Halloween show at the
Wiltern, hit songs reach rad decibels on KHJ, Cal
Worthington shows off his “dog” Spot, shoppers flock
to Zody’s and Zeidler & Zeidler . . . readers from colder
climes will come up short trying to place many of these
names. But Pynchon knows the smog-infested lanes
through which he is navigating.

An occasional anachronism will slip through. Okay, I
will cut Pynchon some slack, and assume that there might
have been a doper with an Internet connection back in
1970—our author at least knows that ARPA-Net is the
proper terminology given the period. But I hate to tell
Tom that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still going under the
name of Lew Alcindor back then. And I simply refuse to
believe that
any SoCal surfer knew about the big waves
at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay during the Nixon
administration. Yet these are small gripes in a book
that gets so much right.

The dialogue is crisp and clever—almost ready for
a Quentin Tarantino film. The prose avoids the degree
of self-indulgence that I associate with this author,
and at times approaches the one adjective I never
thought I would apply to Pynchon: tight. The novelist
retains many of his time-honored trademarks: a preference
for lots and lots of characters (I recommend you keep
a scorecard)—albeit handled more deftly here than
elsewhere in his oeuvre; a certain conceptual extravagance
that pushes everything two or three steps beyond anything
taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop; and, above all, the
paranoid tone, of which Pynchon is perhaps our greatest
connoisseur.  Other novelists have written about the Mob,
but only Pynchon looks for
The Mob behind the Mob.

The small details are half the fun here. For no extra
charge, the reader is given a new interpretation of the
Japanese movie
Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
which explicates it as a reworking of
Roman Holiday (1953)
—full disclosure: I still can't decide whether Ghidrah is
supposed to be Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck.  We
find Henry Kissinger on the
Today show, formulating
foreign policy: "Vell, den, ve schould chust bombp
dem, schouldn't ve?"   We learn about a Beverly Hills
auto collision repair shop called The Resurrection of
the Body.  And we find a health food joint off Melrose
called The Price of Wisdom, which is located upstairs
from Ruby's Lounge—but you will need to check out
Job 28:18 to figure that one out.  

What other writer would give you counterfeit money
with Richard Nixon’s picture on all denominations? an
immense stash of heroin that doubles as a new type of
TV set? a class action suit representing viewers of the
movie
The Wizard of Oz? a lost continent at the bottom
of the ocean whose exiles simply moved to Los Angeles?
or an encounter between Godzilla and the folks on
Gilligan's Island?  Every page has something strange
and wonderful—although sometimes just plain strange.
I’m not sure what drugs you need to take to come up
with this stuff. Certainly I’ll pass on the pills, thank
you very much. But I read the book, and with pleasure.

Here is a taste:

Offshore winds had been to strong to be doing the surf
much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early
anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a
visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert
winds and heat and restlessness, with the exhaust from
millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave
sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the
spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-
warning skies. The state liquor stamps over the tops
of tequila bottles in the stores were coming unstuck, is
how dry the air was. . . . In the little apartment complexes
the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the
stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the
palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so
that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light,
it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete
geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical
downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look
outside, and of course there'd be only the same hot cloudless
depth of day, no rain in sight.

Pynchon has found his perfect element: namely water
with a tiny fringe of sand. He has done war-torn London
and California wine country and other settings in the past.
But his worldview and writing style have always possessed
something of the surfer’s freeform daring about them, and
a fluid sense of structure that is almost an anti-structure.
All of these traits contribute to the success of
Inherent Vice.

We also encounter some of this author's characteristic
blindspots here—you shouldn't read Pynchon expecting
psychological depth, plausible situations, or a coherent
interpretation of modern life.  In this regard,
Inherent
Vice
is in keeping with his previous books. But, dang,
this novel is readable in a way that Pynchon has rarely
been before. I have come to expect the unexpected from
this author, but this time he really surprised me—in the
eternal battle between form and content, he has shown
the smallest glimmer of a formalist streak.  

And you, dear reader? If you have been scared off of
this writer because of his daunting reputation, this is the
time to put your toe—or your whole boogie board—in
the water. I have read lots of novels in my time, but this
was the first one I finished by exclaiming: “Tubular!”


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.

Essay published August 2,
2009.
Click on image to purchase
Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon
He's been in hiding so long, we’ve forgotten
what the original charges were. The photo
on the wanted poster
down at the post office
is so old, stamps were
only four cents back
when it was taken—not
that Pynchon would
know, since he was al-
legedly connected to an
underground alternative
mail system, the dreaded
Tristero, in which a quick sketch of Miles
Davis’s trumpet replaced your usual postage.  
How cool is that? When bounty hunters are

in pursuit, he has been known to leap out of
second story windows to avoid capture or
requests for a quick snapshot. For a while,

some speculated the Pynchon was actually
J.D. Salinger, the Unabomber, D.B. Cooper,
or maybe all three. Who knows? He has lived
a life so reclusive that Emily Dickinson looks
like a party animal by comparison, and when
Dick Cheney went into hiding at an

“undisclosed location” following the 9/11
attacks, his hideout was, according to some
insiders, the spare bedroom at Tom’s

apartment. Some of us hope that Pynchon
will receive the Nobel Prize in literature, if
only in anticipation that it will lure him into
the open, where he can be arrested by His
Majesty the King of Sweden and extradited
back to the States to face charges. But given
this sly fugitive’s gamesmanship, we probably
won’t get anything better than a handcuffed
Professor Irwin Corey, who impersonated the
author at the National Book Award ceremony

in 1974.  In the meantime, you can search
the books for clues, of which you will find no
shortage.
ROGUES GALLERY:
THOMAS PYNCHON
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Further Clues:

Dr. Irwin Corey's Acceptance Speech on Behalf of
Thomas Pynchon at the 1974 National Book Award
Ceremony

Thomas Pynchon Home Page at San Narciso
Community College

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons and here
(note the author's pronunciation of his name as
pinch-AWN instead of the frequently heard

PINCH-un)

Review of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

The Unofficial Thomas Pynchon Guide to Los
Angeles
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