Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello stands at the nexus of Philip Marlowe and The Dude, a stoner P.I. with a sense of morality and a devotion to his trade. With the events of the novel taking place in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1970 (the Manson trial is an understated but constant presence in the lives of the characters) Thomas Pynchon has set himself the challenge of evoking a well-worn but endlessly fascinating era, without resorting to hackneyed observations about pot smokers getting the munchies. (Which is not to say that his pot-smokers don’t get the munchies, just that they seem to do so organically.)
Inherent Vice is riddled with improbable coincidences, impossible conspiracies, and people with funny names. (Cf. Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fullbright, Vincent Indelicato, Adrian Prussia, et al.) There’s also quite a lot of sex going on, and not all of it the sort of white-washed “free love” b.s. that so many hazy recollections would have you believe. Pynchon’s characters get down and dirty in many different ways, but the novel never feels lurid or tacky, even when he describes a somewhat polyandrous relationship between a woman, her biker boyfriend who will only penetrate her from behind, and his boyfriend, who likes to sing the Ethel Merman parts in show tunes.
A coherent explanation of the plot would take too long and almost certainly scare more timid readers away from the book, but it really is quite a clever riff on the plots of Chandleresque detective novels. (Chandler is said to have been unable to explain part of the solution of The Big Sleep to the people working on the film adaptation.) There are many crimes in Inherent Vice, and solving them all is sort of an afterthought to merely shining a light on human corruption and venality. Like Philip Marlowe, Doc Sportello is our virtuous guide behind the curtain, he just happens to have both a perpetual buzz and a perpetual hard-on.
Because of his lengthy, densely allusive novels like Gravity’s Rainbow (which, in full disclosure, I have not read) Pynchon is a name that tends to scare off readers, but Inherent Vice, which seemed to puzzle many critics due to its seeming simplicity, is really quite a joyful look at a bygone time and place. Though the prose occasionally drifts into odd constructions (the author has this way of steering his sentences so that they intentionally end in prepositions, even when they would sound better the other way) the novel zips along from thrill to thrill. I don’t think the novel would be out of place in your beach bag.