Literary feast

Sink your teeth into these tales of drugs, the Lost Generation and secrets

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 2009

During his twenties, Thomas Pynchon sampled the West Coast of the late 1960s, and he spares his latest novel none of that experience. Dope-smoking private eye Doc Sportello narrates Inherent Vice with the black humor expected of someone who is always recuperating from a drug binge or an ass-beating.

“Well, what I’ve been noticing since Charlie Manson got popped is a lot less eye contact from the straight world. You folks all used to be like a crowd at the zoo—‘Oh, look, the male one is carrying the baby, and the female one is paying for the groceries,’ sorta thing, but now it’s like, ‘Pretend they’re not even there, ’cause maybe they’ll mass murder our ass.”

When Doc’s ex-girlfriend shows up asking for help saving her current lover then disappears on a sinister ocean liner owned by the faceless “Golden Fang,” Doc’s head-trip really begins. He must find the girl, avoid the fists of cops, bikers and ex-cons, all while smoking a lot of herb under the spiritual guidance of a borrowed guru and the occasional burnt-out surfer.

It’s a bit like Chinatown set to a Dick Dale soundtrack, but Pynchon makes art of the pulp that forms the pages of Inherent Vice. Nostalgia for the hippie era runs like an aqueduct, but unlike many of the novel’s characters, it never loses focus. Doc Sportello, a crossbreed of Sherlock Holmes, Timothy Leary and Buzzy Trent, maintains surprising credibility, even when high on Asian indica.

Keenly nosing the fresh surf for clues before being muddied again by the occasional acid flashback, he almost defies cynics who suggest that widespread, recreational drug use never led to anything more productive than an episode of Scared Straight.

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
by Ernest Hemingway
Scribners, 2009

Ernest Hemingway’s classic book about Lost Generation life in 1920s Paris has alternately been considered memoir and a collection of tales whose truths are invisible to the naked eye. Although A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death, the author anticipated public reaction and, in the 1964 preface, launched a preemptive strike against controversy by politely bowing out of it.

“For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book.” The preface finishes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

In July, A.E. Hotchner, friend and biographer of Ernest Hemingway, wrote an op-ed titled, “Don’t Touch ‘A Moveable Feast,’” for The New York Times. Livid about editorial changes made to the 1964 edition, Hotchner believes the recently published A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition to be unforgivably diminished by editor Sean Hemingway (grandson of Ernest and Pauline) in an attempt to portray his grandmother in a more positive light. The editor defends the changes in The Restored Edition, arguing that Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, actually wrote the 1964 preface herself.

The controversy continues to broil, and at the center of the fray remains one of Hemingway’s most loved works. Readers can celebrate that The Restored Edition contains material cut from the original. Then again, the ending that many have spent more than 40 years growing to love is omitted. Ultimately, Hemingway appreciators ought to read them side-by-side.

The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best Stories of the Year, 2009
Laura Furman, Editor
Anchor Books, 2009

The works anthologized in The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories are culled, from May to May, from a worldwide literary pool. The 20 prize-winning stories in the 2009 volume were selected by a prize jury comprised of A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr and Tim O’Brien, and winners range from prolific writers Paul Theroux and Nadine Gordimer to Viet Dinh and L.E. Miller, whose work has never, until now, been published in book form.

In Caitlin Horrocks’ “This Is Not Your City,” a Russian woman and her husband living in Finland learn of their teenaged daughter’s disappearance. Strained by the language barrier in her new country, the woman meditates on her strained relationship with her child between visits from the police.

“Tell Him about Brother John” by Manual Munoz finds a young man nervously returning to his childhood home to visit his father. Pressured into hearing an orphan neighbor’s distressing confession, he learns that listening to secrets can be just as dangerous as revealing them.

The Pen / O.Henry Prize Stories, 2009 does what any great fiction anthology aspires to. It collects a strong group of literary voices and celebrates the art—and craft—of the short story.