Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Inherent Vice," Thomas Pynchon (2009)

Mr. Pynchon is still swinging for the fences -- after 2007's Against the Day (1100 pages), here comes his tale of psychedelic L.A. gumshoe Larry "Doc" Sportello at a relatively breathless 384 pages. Can Pynchon and Penguin Books be taking aim at mass-market popularity with Internet Vice and its candy-colored cover?

Reviewers are applauding the novel's pop appeal. Early comment noted the book's tone and California setting -- one calls it Pynchon's "sunshine noir" -- and it is heavy on the Woodstock Nation references. Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone compounds the '60s echoes by commenting that "Pynchon flashes the Sixties rock references faster than a Ten Years After guitar solo: His characters walk around wearing T-shirts from Pearls Before Swine, name-drop the Electric Prunes, turn up the Stones' 'Something Happened to Me Yesterday' on the radio." The book's August release date, forty years on from the three days of peace love and music at Mr. Yasgur's farm, is perhaps slyly coincidental marketing.

Younger readers are free to read Inherent Vice as an acid-tinged historical novel that comes not a moment too soon: the old road is rapidly aging, as Dylan once sang. It was reported this week Mr. Tambourine Man himself was hauled off to jail last month by two New Jersey cops in their mid-twenties, who had no idea what the funny man without I.D. claiming to be "on tour" was talking about. I'm sure Mr. Pynchon (wherever he may be) is laughing.

Here's an excerpt from Inherent Vice, recently posted on the Pynchon website.

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe and the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look.

"That you, Shasta? The packaging fooled me there for a minute."

"Need your help, Doc."

They stood in the streetlight through the kitchen window there'd never been much point putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.

Nobody was saying much. What was this? "So! You know I have an office now? Just like a day job and everything?"

"I looked in the phone book, almost went over there. But then I thought, better for everybody if this looks like a secret rendezvous."

OK, nothing romantic tonight. Bummer. But it might be a paying gig. "Somebody's keeping a close eye?"

"Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good."

"How about a beer?" He went to the fridge, pulled two cans out of the case he kept inside, handed one to Shasta.

"There's this guy," she was saying.

There would be. No point getting emotional. And if he had a nickel for every time he'd heard a client start off this way, he would be over in Hawaii now, loaded day and night, digging the waves at Waimea, or better yet hiring somebody to dig them for him .... "Gentleman of the straight-world persuasion," he beamed.

"OK, Doc. He's married."

"Some ... money situation."

She shook back hair that wasn't there and raised her eyebrows so what.

Groovy with Doc. "And the wife — she knows about you?"

Shasta nodded. "But she's seeing somebody too. Only it isn't just the usual number — they're working together on some creepy little scheme."

"To make off with hubby's fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin' once or twice around L.A. And ... you want me to do what exactly?" He found the paper bag he'd brought his supper home in and got busy pretending to scribble notes on it, because straight-chick uniform, makeup supposed to look like no makeup or whatever, here came that old well-known hard-on Shasta was always good for sooner or later. Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.

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