DAVE DAVIES, host:
Now in his 70's, the acclaimed writer Thomas Pynchon is best known for long, dense novels, most famously "Gravity's Rainbow," which won the National Book Award in 1974. In his new book, "Inherent Vice," he tries something completely different: a private eye novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley. Our critic at large John Powers says it's an enjoyable book by a writer whose work can be daunting.
JOHN POWERS: It wasn't so long ago that detective fiction was considered a low brow form that was somehow beneath serious writers. The triumph of pop culture changed all that. These days, many of our most acclaimed literary figures, including Kazuo Ishiguro and John Banville, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, are writing novels that send investigators walking down those famously mean streets. The latest to do so is Thomas Pynchon, the publicity-shy 72-year-old wizard who broke onto the scene in 1963 with "V," a globetrotting epic about paranoia and patterns, history and entropy that's one of the great first novels ever written.
In the decade since, he has made himself into a cult hero with a series of dazzling, difficult books, most recently the underrated "Against the Day," that have fond the Earth like the monoliths at the beginning of "2001." I know people who swear that Pynchon has saved their lives. But I know others who say he is literally unreadable. Nobody will say that about "Inherent Vice," his loosey-goosey new take on the L.A. private eye yarn. The scene is Gordita Beach, 1970, and the Age of Aquarius is yawning, not dawning. The detective is Larry Doc Sportello, a short big-haired stoner who's closer to Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe than to Humphrey Bogart's. As for the case, well, it begins with a woman, Doc's ex-flame, Shasta.
She turns up asking for help with her current boyfriend, a real estate mogul who's been getting threats. Still love-struck, Doc agrees and promptly plunges into the madness of L.A. noir, with his resurrected rockers and murderous neo-Nazis, its hot to trot chicks, and needless to say, a friendly nemesis of a cop who it is necessary to say is probably the book's smartest and most complicated character. For all it's shagginess, "Inherent Vice" does honor the rituals of the traditional detective story. Doc follows leads, goes undercover, gets conked on the noggin. There's even a fresh description of the Santa Ana Winds. Their dryness causes the state seals on tequila bottles to come unstuck.
And these have been a stable of Southern California fiction since Raymond Chandler's story, "Red Wind." At the same time, the book brims with Pynchon's trademark silliness, from characters with names like Jason Velveeta and Sledge Poteet, to elaborate riffs on pop culture - for instance an imaginary TV movie called "Godzilligan's Island," or a hilarious discussion of Charlie the Tuna's death wish. I suspect that for Pynchon, as for so many other so-called literary writers, one great appeal of detective fiction is that it's formulaic. This takes away the pressure to be brilliantly original. You just followed the rules and burrow into what excites you.
That's what Pynchon does in "Inherent Vice," probably the closest thing to autobiography we'll ever get from this most private of writers. He lived in Manhattan Beach during the late 1960s, and in its cockeyed way the novel glows with his nostalgic fondness for countercultural L.A. with its surfers and druggies, its rock and roll dreamers, and beautiful losers. These include the soulful, chivalrous Doc, a terrific character who loves Lakers Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the brooding blacklisted actor John Garfield. I'm betting that Pynchon does too. Precisely because the book is deliberately minor, it feels like one from the heart.
Of course, the limitation of detective novels is that what's most satisfying about them, the way things all tie up, can become predictable, even mechanical. This doesn't matter so much when an author invents a whole world, as in Michael Chabon's marvelous tour-de-force, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." But it's a real letdown in a more straight forward mystery like Banville's "Christine Falls," a hauntingly dank evocation of '50s Dublin that ultimately gets bogged down in the busywork of who did what and why, the sort of bookkeeping that dedicated crime writers usually do better than literary stars. Here Doc solves the crime, but the book ends not with reassuring closure, but with an intimation of huge sinister forces and our hero driving in heavy fog.
In this, "Inherent Vice" offers a simplified version of Pynchon's enduring political theme, the way that the search for freedom and solidarity, be by the Wobblies or bebop musicians or 60's longhairs, is forever being done in by those who would appropriate the whole world under the banner of greed and fear. Like a good noir detective, Pynchon roots for the underdog. But he knows that the world's inherent vice is that it belongs to the powerful.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. Thomas Pynchon's new book is "Inherent Vice." You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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