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Thomas Pynchon
Inherent Vice
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Viking / Penguin
US hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-59420-224-7
Publication Date: 08-04-2009
369 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 08-18-09

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction  Fantasy

In our best writers, skill and soul become one. The ability to command language becomes an extension of the soul in command, and the words that pour forth onto the page achieve a balance between precision and passion that blurs the chasm between the two. Reading our best books is a pleasure that simply has no equal. Thomas Pynchon is a writer who as well has no equal.

'Inherent Vice' is not the Thomas Pynchon novel you'd ever expect, but then, placing expectations on Pynchon's work is a loser's game. You can always expect skill, soul, precision and passion; you might well not expect a stoned LA noir set in the Nixon years, shortly after the Sharon Tate murders. The novel begins when PI Larry "Doc" Sportello's ex-girlfriend, Shasta shows up. She's now involved with a millionaire land-developer who's about to go missing. A lot of stuff is about to go missing, and only some of it is going to show up again in approximately the same condition. Doc's in the game to keep everything balanced according to his own particular center of gravity.

Noir is a genre of language, of voice, and Pynchon's smooth, stoned flowing prose is a remarkable performance. It's musical, rhythmic and floats over the scenery like skilled singer, scatting as if there were no tomorrow. It's a joy to read, immersive and sexy. The twisty and seductive sentences wrap around a perfectly imagined setting like an early morning fog creeping into a sleepy seaside hamlet. It ebbs and pulls, the words hover and dart. This is not the noir prose of Chandler, though it's his territory, some years later. But this is the perfect noir voice for Doc Sportello's voyage through a society under siege as only Pynchon could re-create it.

Southern California is a difficult world to create in any prose. But Pynchon's LA, particularly the South Bay where Doc has his clients and his office, unfurls as a series of drives, dives, and suburban hells incubating the 21st century. It's beautiful and almost innocent, even in the decadence of the early 70's. Pynchon knows the map intimately and explores it intimately as well. He shows a real love for the place and time, authentic and tough when it needs to be but often tender as well. There's a wistfulness that rises from the lovely prose like smoke curling out of an ornate bong.

Tenderness also applies to the characters, from Doc to Bigfoot, his cop nemesis and buddy, from Shasta to Sortilege. There's nobody you meet in 'Inherent Vice' that you’re not happy to see the next time they show up. Pynchon's prose is perfect for creating complicated characters who embrace hypocrisy and self-contradiction with a smile and another draw on whatever pipe, joint, cigarette or cigar presents itself. The line of the law in these men and women is more of a river, flowing to accommodate whatever circumstance presents itself. As a consequence, they're all just a hoot to read about.

Pynchon's sense of humor is subtle, but more often than not good for an out-loud laugh. For a book about murder and other unsavory goings-on, 'Inherent Vice' is absurdly funny, with a sweet sensibility that's never angry or vicious. These aren't just stoner jokes. In fact, some of the best stuff comes out of Pynchon's lyrics for a variety of bands he creates; for example, "Soul Gidget" by Meatball Flag:

"Who never worries about her karma?
Who be that signifyin on your mama?
Out there looking so bad and big
Like Sandra Dee in some Afro wig —
Who is it?
Soul Gidget!"

For all the music and musicality here, rest assured you will find a stealthy conspiracy behind everything, a shady importer allied with dentists, real estate, drugs, a weirdly-architected building, and a ship that haunts San Pedro in a variety of guises. Everybody thinks they're in control, except for the smartest who know the limits of their knowledge and that nobody, really, is ever in control. Pynchon's vision of crime blurs with business and even includes the infant Internet growing like a weed into the lives of everyone to come. We're the worst nightmare of many characters in 'Inherent Vice.' And we're the audience as well, with an ear cocked for the next saxophone solo echoing down the aisles of the bookstore. This is the prose that sings to us, tells us stories, and carries us into the future that is already in our past.

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