INHERENT VICE, by Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press. 369 pp. $27.95
Raymond Chandler meets Panama Red in Thomas Pynchon's casual, occasionally hilarious "Inherent Vice" - which makes sense for an author whose works can be measured in kilos (especially the last two, "Mason & Dixon" and "Against the Day"). It also makes sense for an author whose work has long married the perversely dystopic to the poetically giddy, with the same cosmic unease with which louche noir detectives have long found a home under the insistent Los Angeles sun.
It's in 1970 L.A. - post Manson, pre-Eagles - that Pynchon places Doc Sportello, a P.I. whose perpetual marijuana buzz abrades the mental acuity usually associated with his profession. Doc misses a lot of clues - heck, he misses a lot, period - although he's clearly aware that all the peace and loveliness around him isn't worth its weight in oregano. So he's refreshingly skeptical when his old girlfriend Shasta shows up, asking for his help to prevent the kidnapping of a billionaire land developer whom she happens to be sleeping with.
Doc isn't silly, just stoned, but what he encounters on the case - the lowlife crazy characters and Mulholland-like plot twists - reflect Pynchon's perspective on the still fragrant '60s and the self-delusion/aborption that mark so many American social eruptions. But the verbally gymnastic Pynchon of "Gravity's Rainbow" smiles through all the sunflower decals, as when he describes the surf and sunrise in a place where the line between day and night is always blurred:
"Offshore winds had been too 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 relentlessness, 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."
Doc has to deal with a cop with a bad attitude toward hippies, and the fate of Mickey the developer, whose disappearance leads to perilous situations and smoky ruminations. There are druggies, surfers and jazz men; the felonious, narcotic and homicidal. There are references to "Gilligan's Island," "Black Narcissus," John Garfield and a Lakers team that loses the 1970 NBA championship to the New York Knicks. The Knicks! Like much of what happens in "Inherent Vice," it seems like a hallucination.