Inherent Vice: A Novel

Los Angeles, circa 1970, must have been the smallest city in the United States. Larry “Doc” Sportello, a not-as-dumb-as-he-first-appears pothead private investigator, runs into anyone he’s ever known and certainly everyone he needs to know to solve a case (sort of) in Thomas Pynchon’s surprisingly genre-straight detective story, Inherent Vice. It may seem contrived that every piece of information Doc needs finds him, but the story is about as important here as it is in The Maltese Falcon: not really important.

Inherent Vice is about mood, time and place, and Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s is in transition from a peace-love-dope vibe to something darker, more realistic and more sinister (think Nixon, certainly, and maybe Reagan), as if all the kids caught up in free love realized that it was all a bunch of bullshit they made up. All this, and Jimi, Janis and Jim Morrison aren’t even dead yet.

Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta, who seems to have left the hippie life behind, sets the story rolling when she hires Doc to find out if her multimillionaire boyfriend’s wife and the wife’s boyfriend are planning to kidnap him or kill him or who-knows-what-else him, and maybe her, too. If that sounds complicated, just wait for chapter two. Shasta’s job is a red herring, of course, just enough to get the tiny snowflake of a story rolling down the mountain so that it can gather the sort of density and speed that a potboiler requires. Over a few pot-and-sex-soaked days in Doc’s life, Pynchon weaves in more than 40 characters big and small—bad cops, good cops, lawyers, musicians, junkies, FBI agents, a drug-smuggling collective, the Aryan Brotherhood and crooked dentists.

There are so many twists and characters that it’s hard to keep them all straight. That puts the reader in the same boat as Doc, who smokes enough marijuana to make the people at High Times look like typical magazine publishers. Doc escapes with mere scratches and, by the end, even gains consciousness. Not from the drugs, of course, but from the idea that everything is, indeed, groovy, and he, much like his “ex-old lady” Shasta, has to make a choice about what life he’s going to lead.

See, the 1970s aren’t like the 1960s, man. Pynchon’s mildly mundane but strangely poignant idea is that one can only stave off progress for so long, and there’s always something bigger and stronger than you to make sure everything goes according to plan. Bummer.

Inherent Vice has many characters doing many things (which made the sprawling Against the Day sometimes maddening even to Pynchonophiles), but the story is lightish and funny. The narrator is a third-person type tuned in to Doc’s head (and even his digestive system: “Doc found himself freaking out, in terms of his stomach and whatever”). The narrator also knows what kind of trouble Doc’s in before he does: “[The bad guy] was accompanied by a yakuza torpedo named Iwao, the spiritual purity of whose dan ranking had long been compromised by a taste for unprovoked asskicking.”

As highs often do, the story flags in the middle, but picks up again at the end for some rock-’em-sock-’em, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” stuff. Maybe Doc—and readers—should have seen it coming, but a detective story doesn’t have to make sense as long as it plays by its own rules.

Inherent Vice does, right to the end, as the fog in Doc’s head becomes easier to see through than the real fog enveloping Los Angeles and changes its landscape forever.