It’s pretty embarrassing to be jogging along listening to an audio book and suddenly burst out laughing… again and again and again. But Inherent Vice will do that to you, even if you can’t follow the labyrinthian plot (or is it really a wandering narrative that just offers up the victim and the villain of the moment, switching them almost interchangeably, until it’s hard to remember who killed or didn’t kill whom.) Characters come and go, as do locations, as do eateries, as do casinos, massage parlors, housing developments, freeways, parking lots, and beaches. The hero is stoned most of the time, and the truth is you might as well be too. Mysteries become engrossing and then just fade away, characters are certainly dead, and then they’re not. Just when you think they can’t be saved, they turn up safe and sound. I mean, I felt really bad for Mickey Wolfmann, and then I admired him, and then I thought he was in deep trouble, and then I didn’t really care, and then he seemed to be okay… maybe.
Shasta Fay Hepworth? I was in love with her, was sure she was dead, then figured that maybe she just dropped out of the story for a while, and then was relieved at how well it all worked out for her… if it did.
The truth is there is a story here, it’s good and complex and well worth the unraveling, honest. But it’s the characters and the commentary that count really. We look at LA in the late 60s, at that brief moment in US history when a whole bunch of youthful humanity thought that things really could get better, and that they could make it happen. Of course the feeling didn’t last and the kids didn’t make it as better as they thought they could. Almost everyone was stoned, that might or might not have helped, and yet that crazy aberrant time created a vision of the way things should be that it’s taken almost 50 years for the power brokers to batter out of our heads… if they ever can.
As for characters… Pynchon has an affinity for creating hilariously descriptive almost onomatopoetic names that we haven’t seen since Ian Flemming or maybe even Charles Dickens. Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a perverted dentist; Loan shark, Adrian Prussia; FBI agents, Flatweed and Borderline; lost soul saxophonist, Coy Harlington; lost love child, Japonica Fenway; nearly psychic real estate agent, Aunt Reet; and of course, the love interest: Shasta Fay Hempworth and the hero Larry (Doc) Sportello. The characters’ words and actions are as descriptive as their names, often representing forces that bounce off each other, whirl around for a while, and then re-collide with strange and unexpected results.
Is this a great work, an insightful and original portrait of am important period of American history, told in an authentic voice of that time? Yes, I think it is. Would I like to see it served up in one of those great books seminars that I took back in college? Hey, wouldn’t that just be groovy, man? Students and profs alike might all learn something.
Note – I mentioned at the top that I listened to this as an audio book. And, as complex and convoluted as the story is, I got it. I think that’s in part due to the exceptional work of narrator Ron McLarty. As Doc Sportello would say, “Nice work man.”