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Book Review: Inherent Vice By Thomas Pynchon

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Everybody's waxing nostalgic for Woodstock this year, being how it's the fortieth anniversary and all. At least the record companies sure are, as you can't turn around without seeing yet another commemorative ash tray or roach clip bearing the three days of peace and music logo on the shelves. Yeah, there's still lots of money to be made off of all that peace, love, and music shit, even forty years later. They might not of cashed in as much as they'd have like to back in the day, but the music industry is making up for lost time now.

Naturally they're downplaying the whole drug thing, except for the occasional mention of how tragic it was that so many of those who performed had their lives and careers cut short supposedly because of drugs. Nobody wants to say that drugs were fun, because that's not the message we want to send in this post-"Just Say No"/War On Drugs era. Even though we've moved on to bigger and better things like the War On Terror, nobody's forgotten Nancy's message, have they? But the reality remains that — horror of horrors — people did a shitload of drugs back in the day and no amount of corporate whitewashing will disguise that fact.

The other bit that they don't seem to want to talk about is how forty years ago in 1969 the whole peace and love trip started to wither on the vine. Not only did that year mark the ascension of Richard Nixon to the throne in Washington, but the Prince of Darkness himself, Ronald Ray-guns, had been governor of California since 1967. Happy Ronnie, who was only glad to help finger Commies in the fifties for Joe McCarthy and his Un-Americans, did his best to fight free love, free speech, and all those other ungodly behaviours those long haired layabouts were engaging in. By the time 1969 washed up on the beach in California, heads were already looking over their shoulders to see where the long arm of the law was every time they lit up a joint. Of course, with paranoia being such a bosom buddy of most drugs to begin with it didn't take much to fuel the massive rip tides of mistrust that started pulling folks under in the late sixties.

While the hucksters and snake oil salesmen might not be talking, there are those who are. Timed perfectly to serve as an antidote to the sales pitches, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice offers us ringside seats to the curtain coming down on the dream in California.

Ostensibly a detective story, we follow Pynchon’s private investigator, Doc Sportello, as he takes on an investigation at the behest of his ex-girlfriend Shasta. She's been seeing a married man, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, and is worried that his wife and her boyfriend are trying to figure out a way to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can grab his loot. Her suspicions are based on the fact they've offered to cut her in if she'll help them out with their scam, but it turns out Shasta really has a thing for Mickey and wants to keep him around. Aside from her natural reluctance to approach the police on principle alone, it seems like there's some sort of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) involvement anyway that's going to prevent anyone from running to the cops for backup on this one.

So we trundle around in Doc's wake as he tries to make head and tail out of this case. Wafting a trail of pot smoke behind him that rivals LA's smog during rush hour, Doc encounters militant black nationalists, neo-Nazi bikers with a thing for Ethel Mermon and show tunes, bent cops, Federal agents, surfer musicians gone bad, junkies, and — worst of all — dentists. Somewhere at the bottom of this pile of people there lurks a mysterious group known as the Golden Fang pulling all the strings. They supply the heroin that's sold on the street and are behind a psychiatric institute where people go to get clean. Of course there's a price to be paid for either the junk or coming clean, and while the former is usually your health and cash, the latter can be even more sinister as Doc discovers.

That creeping paranoia Doc feels isn't just because he smokes too much dope, it's because there's something creeping around behind the scenes exerting control over the peace-loving, dope-smoking, and fun-loving community of beach folk. While the King and the Prince Of Darkness clamping down harder and harder to "Make America Safe" means more people are getting busted for doing drugs, the drugs are being controlled more and more by the people who put them on the throne. The Golden Fang people see nothing wrong with making a quick buck from people before they end up jail for ten to twenty for using their product.

On the surface Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride filled with memorable characters. Doc might be perpetually stoned and rely on extrasensory perceptions brought on by certain psychedelic substances for insights, but he's also as persistent as they come when following a trail. Pretty much unflappable he's able to weather whatever surprises pop up and goes with the flow no matter what. However even he's a little disconcerted to discover the nasty truth lurking underneath the haze of pot smoke, that the end of innocence is at hand. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and there's no amount of drugs that will allow hum to hide from that reality anymore. The days of trust are over, and he's going to have to get used to looking over his shoulder on a more regular basis.

There's a note of sadness that runs through Inherent Vice that will hopefully have people questioning the neat and tidy image of the sixties that's being packaged these days. Pynchon make no apologies for where his sympathies lie, with those on the other side of today's right wing moral code. Yet at the same time he doesn't let sentiment or nostalgia prevent him from showing the darker side of that lifestyle. Still, you can't help but feel a pang for what was lost and what might have been when you come to the end of this book. Very few people seem to want to tell the truth about the 1960's but Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. You couldn't ask for a better guide to its demise.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Dave Wisker

    This is one of the best reviews of the book I’ve seen (Rolling Stone’s was excellent as well). I grew up in the South Bay of LA in the 60’s and 70’s (San Pedro, specifically), and have been enjoying Pynchon’s accuracy depicting it, and his typical humor. But Pynchon always counters the fun and wit with a sense of paranoia, dread, and foreboding, whether it be WWI in “Against the Day”, or the shadow of Charles Manson giving narcs the excuse to hassle the freaks. Its all about Innocence Lost.

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