August 9, 2009

Pulp Cubed


When it comes to trying to review Thomas Pynchon’s new novel Inherent Vice (Penguin, $27.95, 384 pages), I find myself at two fundamental disadvantages to those snoots over at the Times or the New Yorker. First, though I tried my hand at it a few times, I never really got a handle on the art and science of reviewing literature. Most critics seem to be working under a set of strict guidelines that never quite made it down my way. Plus, I’m not nearly as smart or sophisticated as those other guys. So whenever I try to review books, whether I love them or hate them, I always feel like a Neanderthal at the cocktail party.

            The second and perhaps larger disadvantage is that I didn’t actually read Inherent Vice—I listened to it, as read by actor Ron McClarty on the Penguin Audio edition (12 CDs, $39.95). As a result, my experience of the book will be quite different from most reader’s, as I’m hearing, in a way, an interpretation. It’s almost like trying to review a book after seeing the film version. But at least in this case all the words are there, and it’s the words that matter.

            Given all that, I guess I’ll give it a shot anyway (though I may end up misspelling a few character names).

            When you think of pulp crime fiction, you tend to think of two-fisted dialogue, rumpled, down-on-their-heels protagonists, swell-looking babes aplenty, tightly wound, serpentine plots with unexpected twists and double crosses, and a downbeat ending. Mr. Pynchon holds right true to all those conventions, and offers them up in spades. But being Mr. Pynchon, he also offers up lost continents, stoned maritime attorneys, a surfedelic band whose members may or may not be zombies, the occasional bad trip, sex of an unconventional nature, and plentiful references to John Garfield, Dark Shadows, and dozens of obscure surf rock bands. Oh—and plenty of slapstick and one-liners, too. And it’s all swirled together in a heady, hardboiled, psychedelic brew that’ll spin your brain around a few times before plopping it on the linoleum.

            Larry “Doc” Sportello is a perpetually-stoned private dick in the paranoid post-Manson Los Angeles of 1969 (or maybe 1970). Nixon’s in the White House, Vietnam is playing in the background, the air is thick with smog and stinkweed, and Doc isn’t exactly beating potential clients off with a stick. What clients he can wrangle, in fact, often end up paying him in pot, or favors owed, or good karma.

            Then one afternoon his ex-girlfriend Shasta shows up looking for his help. It seems her current boyfriend, a married real estate mogul, might be the subject of a kidnapping plot being hatched by some unsavory elements, and she’s wondering if Doc could, y’know, stop it?

            Once that much is established in the opening pages, things get very complicated very quickly, what with the hookers of various ethnicities, corrupt cops, even more corrupt dentists, Nazi bikers, doppelgangers of all shapes and sizes, hit men, FBI agents, and a mysterious and terrifying organization known as The Golden Fang.

            (One brief note here about the mostly terrific job done by Ron McClarty on the audio version. Reading Pynchon aloud is no easy task. It’s not like he just had to come up with voices for tough cops, seedy criminals and one-dimensional love interests. He had to, among other things, give audio life to a black militant ex-con in the middle of a torrid gay affair with a member of Aryan Nations. He did a mighty fine job, too—though I really wish he hadn’t sung all the songs.)

            While the first few chapters at times read like an extended Cheech and Chong routine (one of Doc’s friends, Denis, thinks a little too hard about Donald Duck cartoons and Gilligan’s Island), things slowly become much darker and much more ominous, as Doc ventures deeper into a shadowy underworld that threatens to obliterate the smiling, sunlit glow of consensus reality. As is so often the case in his novels, this shadow world doesn’t just involve your typical killers and loan sharks and smugglers—there are also strange lines of force, time warps, ghost ships, ancient, sunken civilizations and astral projection to contend with. It’s all as much a reflection of the times as the dialogue and references.

            Trying to recount the plot here would be no fun for either of us. Better for you to uncover it for yourself, page by page from beginning to end, in as few sittings as possible. Because that’s the joy of reading a Pynchon novel—not the mechanics of the plot or untangling the significance of the references (which, as usual, are plentiful)—it’s just letting yourself be carried along by writing like no one else’s. The dialogue is funny as hell, with a stoned detective trying to make sense not only of the insanity he’s stumbled into, but of the world in general. But the prose—the long narrative passages, especially toward the second half of the novel after the characters have been introduced and the plot is rolling merrily along—is as beautiful and powerful as anything I’ve ever read. Doc’s contact at the LAPD—an oversized, over-tough, hippie-hating cop named Bigfoot—has a monologue about the fear that crept into LA following the Tate-LaBianca murders that stopped me cold, as did Doc’s own musings about the irretrievable end of the sixties. It’s in passages like those (and so many others) that a cheap pulp novel is elevated to High Art. Chandler did it before this, and so did Jim Thompson, but neither of them did it quite like this.

            No Pynchon novel before this has been quite so much . . . fun. If the snoots want to dismiss it for that reason, to shake their heads and cluck their thick cold tongues while comparing Inherent Vice to heftier, “more serious” works like Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, I say they’re reacting like knee-jerk ninnies and twits. If you look at his works collectively, Inherent Vice—as fun and cinematic and deceptively “light” as it might seem at first read—makes perfect sense. The fact that it’s as accessible as it is means nothing. For some reason, when the snoots write their turgid little academic papers about Mr. Pynchon’s work, they always seem to overlook the jokes. I never understood that.

            In short, for those of us who have long dreamed of a Pynchon pulp novel, it’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for (and much, much more!). And for those of you who have up to this point shied away from his novels because you heard they were “hard,” “impenetrable,” or “too long,” well, now you have no more excuses, ya buncha sissies—this is your chance to understand for yourselves why I’ve long held that he’s the greatest novelist this country has ever produced. Inherent Vice opens like a lark, a whim, a breezy summer read—but by the end it’s become something absolutely astonishing. I finished the book several weeks ago, but still can’t seem to shake it. I think it’ll be with me for a good long time coming.

            Everything else aside, how could I not love a book that drops references to George Formby, Lawrence Welk, Johnny Staccato, Herb Albert, the Bonzo Dog Band, He Ran All the Way, and King Ghidorah?


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