The Bell-Bottom Detective

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice
is set in the last days of hippie-era Los Angeles, shortly after the Manson murders have spoiled everything. His detective, Doc Sportello, is a mellow stoner who tools around his home town of Gordita Beach in a ten-year-old Dodge Dart. He has esoteric tastes in surfer music and a wallet full of phony business cards, which are about all he needs to go under cover in a place where people are either too narcissistic or too stoned to pay much attention to details. Most of Doc business involves tracking down people who have wandered off for one reason or another–or most frequently, for no reason at all. The lightweight detective work suits Doc fine. His short-term memory ain’t so great, so even the desultory business of interviewing witnesses can be a challenge. He lives and works in a state of amiable confusion.

Literary private eyes tend to be hard-bitten empiricists. Doc keeps his immediate surroundings at a middle distance, so that people emerge from and disappear back into Doc’s perceptual fog at a pace that a reader is more likely to find alarming unless they are toking themselves. Doc’s hometown of Gordita Beach is at the edge of the continent, and therefore at the margins of a mode of consciousness. Doc straddles a funky beach town and the universe of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. Just as the 1960s are winding down to a close, so is the entire universe. Instead of a final revelation, however, the Pynchon universe keeps getting more complex and unintelligible.

Doc can be seen as change of heart for Pynchon, a softening of his once potent, even angry, paranoia. Pynchon assigns his soft-headed detective to solve the mystery of a missing land developer. Clues immediately start coming in, then they don’t stop. We quickly lose our expectations that Doc will ever make sense of the mystery that doesn’t deepen so much as widen. Pynchon spins digressions out of digressions, covering topics as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and the re-emergence of the sunken continent of Lemuria. Some of the digressions are small masterpieces, such as one stoner’s outburst about StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna: “It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty.”

As one might imagine, though, not every notion rolling around Doc’s brainpan is equally interesting. A scene in a drug clinic staffed entirely by dentists feels rushed and perfunctory. Even Doc doesn’t seem all that interested in it. Pynchon’s tendency toward repetition manifests itself in a steady parade of addle-brained women in bikini tops. Pynchon also supplies a steady dose of period stoner humor. While it isn’t funny, it isn’t as tiresome as one might expect, either.

As the novel lurches towards its conclusion, the inherent awkwardness of depicting the late Flower Power period becomes more palatable and meaningful. Without actually meaning to, Doc eventually pieces together a coherent worldview, if not a solution to the mystery that would hold up in court. The Counterculture of the 1960s was a last gasp effort to preserve genuine human individuality and expression before the security apparatus and its ideological counterpart, bourgeois values, consigned everyone to a vaguely bewildered conformity.

This is not a particularly original point, but it’s worth remembering. Still, my question is this: Why, despite all its mass appeal and cosmic awareness, did the Counterculture prove so fragile? One violent act–in the case of Inherent Vice, the Manson murders–was enough to bring the whole edifice down, as if there were an element of bad faith to the entire project. This is a narrative I’ve encounter several times, including in Inherent Vice. And in all these narrative, including the Pynchon novel, no matter how nostalgic for the period, I’ve always detected what I thought was a sense of relief that the period is over.



  1. I thought this was a good read, but a minor Pynchon. Not nearly as good as Against the Day. Too many groovies. Pynchon’s version of the Big Lebowski.


  2. Thomas Pynchon is an acquired taste. When I first read Pynchon, I realized I was reading someone who was a literary personification of a Jerry Garcia dictum: “It’s not enough to be the best at what you do. You have to be the only one to do what you do.” I was (am) hooked.
    Not that Pynchon hasn’t let me down. I did not like “Against the Day” after page 250 or so (or once we left the Colorado miners behind), and “Vineland,” I thought, was a bad joke. “Gravity’s Rainbow” is probably still his best, but for warmth and humanity, “Mason & Dixon” tops it. “Inherent Vice” is a wonderful joyride. There are the usual Pynchon foibles – too many stupid names, too much loveless sex, too many bad punchlines. But there is something so easy about reading it – and that is certainly unusual for Pynchon. I’m not sure if all readers will have as easy a time as a Pynchon devotee like me, but I don’t see how this novel could present any real difficulties. Just remember that plot continuity is not really all that important in any PI novel. Raymond Chandler agrees with me on that last point, and Pynchon is obviously lovingly parodying Chandler and Hammett in “Inherent Vice.”


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