september 2009

Los Angeles, 1970

Inherent vice: n. ~ The tendency of material to deteriorate due to the essential instability of the components or interaction among components.
—SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology


Wherein our critic takes the measure of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and figures the author was once shadowing him.

'Every page has something strange and wonderful—although sometimes just plain strange. I'm not sure what drugs you need to take to come up with this stuff.'

By Ted Gioia

I must have run into this Pynchon fellow back when he was working on Gravity's Rainbow. The reclusive author was living in Manhattan Beach and haunting the coastline of the South Bay of Los Angeles. During the same period Manhattan Beach and nearby Hermosa Beach were my teenage homes away from home, and the places where I hung out—Either/Or Bookstore, the Lighthouse, Zeppies Pizza, Taco Bill's—were just the sort of storefronts to attract the custom of a counterculture sort like Mr. Pynchon.

thumbnailI have long wondered which of those beach bums was the eccentric postmodern novelist. Was he there watching the great Buzz Swartz and Matt Gage dominate the strand volleyball scene? Hell, maybe he is Matt Gage—they look enough alike. Or was he seated next to me at the Lighthouse, checking out Rahsaan Roland Kirk's sax heroics? Or should I believe my friend's insistence that the erudite gentlemen who dominated the conversation at a book discussion group at the local beach library was in fact the author of Vineland and V.?

Now after reading Inherent Vice, Pynchon's latest novel, I am all the more convinced that this author was shadowing me all that time. The story is set in Gordita Beach (a stand-in for Manhattan Beach) in April and May of 1970, and is immersed in the surfadelic culture of the period. Yes, the Lighthouse appears here, as do dozens of other places where I might have crossed paths with the secretive Mr. P.

Get flash player to play to this file

Thomas Pynchon reads from Inherent Vice in a promo for his new novel

This is more than a novel about the beach; it is also—uncharacteristically for this often challenging author—a book you could bring to the beach for an entertaining read amidst the sand and sun. The plot moves with great speed; by page 25, the reader has already enjoyed a dose of sex, murder, drugs and rock-and-roll. But there is plenty more of all of these to come. Before Inherent Vice comes to its wipeout of a conclusion, you will have encountered enough narcotics to keep a Columbian cartel busy for a year, and so many corpses that Thomas Noguchi needs to call a temp agency for backup support.

Doc Sportello is the hippie private investigator at the center of these strange happenings. Doc's track record is spotty at best. He probably commits more crimes than he solves. His memory and mental skills might once have been first-rate, but that was about ten thousand reefers ago. Nowadays he is lucky if he doesn't have a hallucinatory flashback at the worst possible moment. Even when he delivers the goods, he rarely gets paid. In short, he is more attuned to the karmic valence than the criminal elements surrounding him.

Yet people come to Doc rather than go to the police. This gives him access to loads of secret info. He knows about a strange smuggling outfit called the Golden Fang, a surf sax player who died from an overdose then came back to life, a real estate developer with strange plans for personal redemption, a loan shark who can get away with murder, and a host of other conspiracies, shake-downs, put-ons, and mix-ups. All these plot elements somehow fit together—if just barely. By the time you get to the finish line of Inherent Vice you have a SoCal conspiracy so broad-based it makes Chinatown look like a Paris-Hilton-overnight-in-the-LA-jail offense.

Get flash player to play to this file

'The Simpsons'—Thomas Pynchon voices his own character

Fans of Pynchon know how meticulously he researches his period writings. Scholars have demonstrated that Pynchon immersed himself in the London newspapers of the WWII-era while writing Gravity's Rainbow, tossing out enough throwaway clues hither and thither to keep a whole generation of tweed-coated academics busy. Inherent Vice reveals a similar degree of deep research. The news events of the Spring of 1970—the impending Charles Manson trial, the Lakers-Knicks series, various Nixon and Kissinger theatrics—simmer away in the background here, along with a plethora of geographical and cultural minutiae. Seymour hosts the Halloween show at the Wiltern, hit songs reach rad decibels on KHJ, Cal Worthington shows off his "dog" Spot, shoppers flock to Zody's and Zeidler & Zeidler... readers from colder climes will come up short trying to place these names. But Pynchon knows the smog-infested lanes through which he is navigating.

thumbnailAn occasional anachronism will slip through. Okay, I will cut Pynchon some slack, and assume that there might have been a doper with an Internet connection back in 1970—our author at least knows that ARPA-Net is the proper terminology given the period. But I hate to tell Tom that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still going under the name of Lew Alcindor back then. And I simply refuse to believe that any SoCal surfer knew about the big waves at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay during the Nixon administration. Yet these are small gripes in a book that gets so much right.

The dialogue is crisp and clever—almost ready for a Quentin Tarantino film. The prose avoids the degree of self-indulgence that I associate with this author, and at times approaches the one adjective I never thought I would apply to Pynchon: tight. The novelist retains many of his time-honored trademarks: a preference for lots and lots of characters (I recommend you keep a scorecard)—albeit handled more deftly here than elsewhere in his oeuvre; a certain conceptual extravagance that pushes everything two or three steps beyond anything taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop; and, above all, the paranoid tone, of which Pynchon is perhaps our greatest connoisseur. Other novelists have written about the Mob, but only Pynchon looks for The Mob behind the Mob.

The small details are half the fun here. For no extra charge, the reader is given a new interpretation of the Japanese movie Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) which explicates it as a reworking of Roman Holiday (1953)—full disclosure: I still can't decide whether Ghidrah is supposed to be Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck. We find Henry Kissinger on the Today show, formulating foreign policy: "Vell, den, ve schould chust bombp dem, schouldn't ve?" We learn about a Beverly Hills auto collision repair shop called The Resurrection of the Body. And we find a health food joint off Melrose called The Price of Wisdom, which is located upstairs from Ruby's Lounge—but you will need to check out Job 28:18 to figure that one out.

What other writer would give you counterfeit money with Richard Nixon's picture on all denominations? An immense stash of heroin that doubles as a new type of TV set? A class action suit representing viewers of the movie The Wizard of Oz? A lost continent at the bottom of the ocean whose exiles simply moved to Los Angeles? Or an encounter between Godzilla and the folks on Gilligan's Island? Every page has something strange and wonderful—although sometimes just plain strange. I'm not sure what drugs you need to take to come up with this stuff. Certainly I'll pass on the pills, thank you very much. But I read the book, and with pleasure.

'Pynchon, I wonder if he knows himself'
Get flash player to play to this file

Professor Irwin Corey stands in for Thomas Pynchon at the National Book Awards, 1974, and delivers the acceptance speech when Gravity's Rainbow is announced the winner in the Fiction category.

Here is a taste:

Offshore winds had been to strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody's skin of desert winds and heat and restlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies. The state liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles in the stores were coming unstuck, is how dry the air was. ... In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there'd be only the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.

Pynchon has found his perfect element: namely water with a tiny fringe of sand. He has done war-torn London and California wine country and other settings in the past. But his worldview and writing style have always possessed something of the surfer's freeform daring about them, and a fluid sense of structure that is almost an anti-structure. All of these traits contribute to the success of Inherent Vice.

We also encounter some of this author's characteristic blindspots here—you shouldn't read Pynchon expecting psychological depth, plausible situations, or a coherent interpretation of modern life. In this regard, Inherent Vice is in keeping with his previous books. But, dang, this novel is readable in a way that Pynchon has rarely been before. I have come to expect the unexpected from this author, but this time he really surprised me.

And you, dear reader? If you have been scared off of this writer because of his daunting reputation, this is the time to put your toe—or your whole boogie board—in the water. I have read lots of novels in my time, but this was the first one I finished by exclaiming: "Tubular!"

Ted Gioia is the editor of, and author of six non-fiction books. His latest, Delta Blues, is a major study of traditional blues music, and was selected as one of 100 notable books of 2008 by The New York Times. His work The History of Jazz was selected as one of the twenty best books of the year by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post, and was chosen as a notable book of the year in The New York Times. His writings on books can be found at The New Canon, Conceptual Fiction and Great Books Guide. Visit his literary web site Great Books Guide (, and its sister sites Conceptual Fiction ( and The New Canon (

Read Chapter 1 of Inherent Vice here.


Thomas Pynchon's Soundtrack to Inherent Vice

Get flash player to play to this file

From Thomas Pynchon himself, obtained a playlist of some of the songs referenced in Inherent Vice. Note that Pynchon's chief protagonist, Larry "Doc" Sportello, performs "Skyful of Hearts." Prefacing this list, Amazon noted: "Larry 'Doc' Sportello is a private eye who sees the world through a sticky dope haze, animated by the music of an era whose hallmarks were peace, love, and revolution. As Doc's strange case grows stranger, his '60s soundtrack picks up pace."

A more comprehensive list is online at the Pynchon Wiki,,
and it contains YouTube links to artist videos and Wikipedia links to artist bios, for those so inclined to explore Doc Sportello's world in more depth.

"Bamboo" by Johnny and the Hurricanes
"Bang Bang" by The Bonzo Dog Band
Bootleg Tape by Elephant's Memory
"Can't Buy Me Love" by The Beatles
"Desafinado" by Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto, with Charlie Byrd
"Elusive Butterfly" by Bob Lind
"Fly Me to the Moon" by Frank Sinatra
"Full Moon in Pisces" performed by Lark
"God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys
The Greatest Hits of Tommy James and The Shondells
"Happy Trails to You" by Roy Rogers
"Help Me, Rhonda" by The Beach Boys
"Here Come the Hodads" by The Marketts
"The Ice Caps" by Tiny Tim
"Interstellar Overdrive" by Pink Floyd
"It Never Entered My Mind" by Andrea Marcovicci
"Just the Lasagna (Semi-Bossa Nova)" by Carmine & the Cal-Zones
"Long Trip Out" by Spotted Dick
"Motion by the Ocean" by The Boards
"People Are Strange (When You're a Stranger)" by The Doors
"Pipeline" by The Chantays
"Quentin's Theme" (Theme Song from "Dark Shadows") performed by Charles Randolph Grean Sounde
"Rembetissa" by Roza Eskenazi
"Repossess Man" by Droolin' Floyd Womack
"Skyful of Hearts" performed by Larry "Doc" Sportello
"Something Happened to Me Yesterday" by The Rolling Stones
"Something in the Air" by Thunderclap Newman
"Soul Gidget" by Meatball Flag
"Stranger in Love" performed by The Spaniels
"Sugar Sugar" by The Archies
"Super Market" by Fapardokly
"Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen
"Telstar" by The Tornados
"Tequila" by The Champs
Theme Song from "The Big Valley" performed by Beer
"There's No Business Like Show Business" by Ethel Merman
Vincebus Eruptum by Blue Cheer
"Volare" by Domenico Modugno
"Wabash Cannonball" by Roy Acuff & His Crazy Tennesseans
"Wipeout" by The Surfaris
"Wouldn't It Be Nice" by The Beach Boys
"Yummy Yummy Yummy" performed by Ohio Express

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024