Inherent Vice doesn’t look like a historical novel. It looks like a shaggy detective story parodied by Thomas Pynchon, or perhaps like a moderately baggy Thomas Pynchon novel parodied by a devotee of the detective story. But it recreates a particular piece of the American past in considerable if often hallucinatory detail, and it wonders what happened to those days, what they meant, and what went with them when they vanished. The novel’s chief character, thinking of recurring sexual desire but encompassing much more, wonders whether it ever ends. The narrator answers, “Of course it does. It did.”
The narrator notes that people always leave behind them “some residue of history” even when they are successfully moving on, and our hero, in the midst of an acid-inspired delirium, is still trying “to find his way out of a vortex of corroded history.” “Vortex” is going a bit far. “Mess” would be closer, but the mess is certainly historical, haunted by old gestures toward meaning, flickers of kindness, and an edgy appetite for damage and destruction, markers of a time that Pynchon sees as only yesterday, even if it was forty years ago, the moment before we fell into the still-frightening but more orderly world we have now. It’s a “page right out of history,” as the same narrator says the Flintstones might say, the reference setting the tone, a long way from Toynbee or Henry Adams. More elusively but also more evocatively, the novel’s hero sees himself as caught up “in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that…had gone on into the future it did.” It’s a fool’s attempt because he knows there is no way back; but at least he understands that there is a past, and that not every future has to cancel it.
The time of Inherent Vice is early 1970, when the Manson case is “about to go to trial,” which it did in June of that year. Richard Nixon is president, Ronald Reagan is governor of the state where the novel is set, its action circling around what I take to be the fictional community of Gordita Beach, situated, as many local indications suggest, somewhere between Marina del Rey and San Pedro—Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo are described as instances of “some other beach town.”
The story opens, as a West Coast detective story should, with a dangerous and poorly specified commission. A former girlfriend visits Doc Sportello, a pot-smoking private investigator of considerable intelligence and wit who is nevertheless apt to forget where and who he is in the real world. One of the book’s finer exchanges goes:
“Wow…what happened to our food man, it’s taking them an awful long time to bring it.”
“We ate it already?”
“What. Did …