Charles Manson lurks behind the pages of Inherent Vice, the latest novel from reclusive mad genius Thomas Pynchon. While the Manson murders don’t factor into the book’s plot, Manson’s name casts a shadow on the world of laid-back freaks habituated by sometime PI and longtime pothead Doc Sportello. Normal folks are always looking for an excuse to put the boot to anyone who doesn’t fit the profit margin, and the straights see Manson’s crazy, spacey cult lurking behind all those friendly stoners pitching true love. After a brief explosion of free expression and chemically enhanced enlightenment, the door is swinging closed on the ’60s, and manic Manson gives the cops all the reason they need to make sure it slams in somebody’s face.
Vice kicks off when Sportello’s ex-old lady and possible lifelong love Shasta seeks him out. Her current beau, billionaire Mickey Wolfmann, may be having some problems, and Shasta wants Sportello’s help in making sure those problems don’t turn murderous. Sportello, being open-minded and generally good-natured, takes the case, and before long, things get complicated. Wolfmann disappears, and Doc is dogged by a dead-eyed surf band, the FBI, a cop who’s maybe friendly but more than a little fascistic, and a malevolent conspiracy under the nom de plume of the Golden Fang. Seeing as how Sportello has a rough time remembering where in the week Tuesday falls, it’s going to take some effort to see this one through.
On the surface, Vice looks friendly. Its cover wouldn’t be out of place wrapped around a Carl Hiaasen novel, and the story has all the well-worn earmarks of a laid-back beach read. But as the plot unfolds, it takes on additional dimensions the way a wet towel takes on sand. Pynchon is clearly playing around, but this isn’t an easy read; the cast numbers in the thousands, and trying to keep track of the various wheels within wheels can induce motion sickness. Thankfully, the novel is a blast to read regardless of whether it makes sense. It’s as funny as Against The Day was obscure, and the biggest surprise is the way the friendly surface holds true. The closing door is inevitable and heartbreaking, but there’s a promise behind it: Not every door stays shut forever.