Every once in awhile, when feeling bold, I make a half-hearted attempt to dive into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Unfortunately I get scared off by the 700+ page count of the National Book Award winner's epic works like Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day, and my boldness quickly subsides. Thankfully, I stumbled across Inherent Vice, the author's shortest work and one that falls within the more accessible genre of detective fiction. Although this sprawling book with dozens of characters and numerous, challenging plot twists isn't light fare by any means, its sense of humor and creative take on classic mystery novel tropes makes for a fun and entertaining read.
Set primarily in the Southern California beach community of "Gordita" in the waning months of the psychedelic 60's, our hero is Doc Sportello - a sometimes brilliant, sometimes bumbling, always drug-addled private investigator whose hazy recollections and marijuana-fueled paranoia set the framework for the book's dense but briskly paced plot. A visit from an ex-girlfriend sets the narrative in motion, leading Doc on a search for a missing mogul, which in turn takes him to a rocker's mansion, a seedy North Vegas lounge, a new-age treatment facility, and all the way to the doorstep of an international crime syndicate known as the "Golden Fang".
Like other private eyes and gumshoes (or in this case, "gumsandal") of film and literature, Doc is a trustworthy guide who lives by a code of honor, although his lifestyle makes him prone to forget what exactly is happening and he occasionally needs a nap (sometimes while on the job). His devotion to the hippie subculture and its adherence of peace, love, freedom and drugs often runs against the L.A. world filled with violence, corruption and greed that his chosen profession takes him into, and it is this dichotomy that produces many of the novel's finest and most hilarious moments. Doc's interaction with his nemesis, a hard-nosed LAPD officer named "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, are particularly amusing.
Although Inherent Vice is a mystery novel set largely near the beach, it isn't a Beach Novel per se. You might need a dictionary handy to get through the prose and a laptop nearby to look up some of the more obscure cultural references (counterculture films and 60s surf rock are referenced freely) but the book's fun loving nature, colorful characters, and hippie mentality make Inherent Vice a groovy trip.