Thomas Pynchon ate my head in 1974. I was 20 years old at the time. I spent that summer in Ocean City, NJ. I was living in my uncle’s house down there, four blocks from the beach. I took a minimum-wage job over in Somers Point at a Bradlee’s department store in a strip mall. Jobs like that were plentiful then, even for a 20 year-old hippie. They assigned me to the housewares department, which was pretty amusing given that I had no knowledge of anything more complicated than a frying pan or a spatula. I knew that forks were invented in Croatia. Hardly any customers ever came in. I don’t think it was me, but the few that did invariably asked me for some really arcane implement or another that I’d never heard of before, stuff like counter-clockwise cap snafflers and left-handed tuber fletchers. That summer I learned a lot about esoteric housewares, and rockets, and plastic, and a hideous eldritch entity known as I.G. Farben, “the Golden Octopus”, as it was known in its time.
I’d brought some acid in little gelatin pyramids and a quarter-pound of pot for the summer, knowing better than to try to score in Ocean City. It’s a small island. It’s a dry town, no booze. Technically it was illegal to serve booze in your home, but this was rarely and very selectively enforced, almost never in the summer. Frat boys spend a LOT of money. The drinking age was 18 back then.
I needed something fresh to read, so when I hit town I picked up the paperback edition of Gravity’s Rainbow, having no clue what it was about or how it would impact my already drug-soaked fractal labyrinth of a life. I still can’t recall the specific impulse that motivated me to buy it, as opposed to, say, some Philip K. Dick thing or more H.P. Lovecraft, some horror, my usual beach fare. Stephen King wasn’t really on the map yet. I read it every day at lunch, which I took in a pizza parlor across the parking lot from Bradlee’s. Two slices and a glass of milk, followed by a joint back by the dumpsters. I usually took it to the beach after work, where I’d smoke dope and read until it got too dark.
By the time I got to Slothrop’s encounter with Grigori the octopus, an incredibly deft simultaneous reference to Rasputin, the apocryphal Book Of Enoch (ever popular with the consumer occultnik crowd), the contemporary nickname for I.G. Farben, and Rudy Wurlitzer’s fantastic hippie novel Nog, I’d acquired a whole new wardrobe of OD fatigue pants and Hawaiian shirts, taken to crashing parties from Sea Isle City to Wildwood, and developed a penchant for quick hookups with Philly girls in the bushes outside the Anchorage (“Seven Beers For A Buck!”) in Somers Point. Back then if you couldn’t get laid at the Anchorage, you couldn’t get laid. This was the Golden Age of humanity, between the Pill and the Plague. I thought I was Pirate Prentice.
I finished the book shortly before Labor Day and knew that I had just experienced the most magnificent literary adventure of my life, not to mention a near-perfect blueprint of the Forbidden Wing of 20th century history, and a completely perfect summer of utterly joyous chaos and crazy irresponsible sex. Thus began my Pynchon fixation, and my delight in his every published work. As for the next 30 or so years, well, life imitates art, especially art you like.
Deeply into 2006 and the manifest horror of open fascism and every Pynchonian terror or boogeyman you can cite running shamelessly naked in the streets and the corridors of power, I escaped from Las Vegas in the middle of the night with my hide and very little else intact and landed in the heart of Silicon Valley. Going for the low-hanging fruit, I put in an application at Ikea, participated in a paid simulated two-week lunar excursion at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and started hustling my editor at High Times to get me some space and folding money to review Pynchon’s forthcoming super-epic-Cinerama monstrosity, Against The Day.
These negotiations were hilarious.
They’re in New York City saying, “Like, why should High Times run a review of Thomas Pynchon? None of our readers are going to read that.”
I’m on the other end of the phone, surrounded with flowers and birds and stoned, exploring the virtual Moon for six hours a day on Red Bull and nicotine gum looking for water, saying “You dedicated lots of space to William Burroughs. I loved him and I love his work, but he hated pot and potheads, really. Didn’t really respond well to psychedelics at all. Thomas Pynchon is to pot as William Burroughs was to heroin. Carl Sagan was a pothead. Not every pothead is a 16 year-old boy, no matter how hard we might try.”
This went round and round until I managed to wrangle 350 words out of them for $150. I pushed the due date all the way down to February so I could actually read the book. I figured with deadlines and all, given the release date of November 21, the severe lateness of the galley deliveries (deliberate?), and just the massive size and sheer density of the thing that very few of the critics would actually read it. I wanted to make the most of my 350 words.
Meanwhile, after a series of prolonged interviewing and personality testing, Ikea offered me a start date on a job selling rugs for $10 an hour. I had to take a piss test. I failed on the THC thing. I went round on them about fobbing it off onto the lab to tell me I couldn’t work at Ikea, insisted I was no sort of beatnik hippie pothead, I wanted something in writing from the old match seller’s enterprise itself, something I might honestly and on a relatively level playing field contest, but they were adamantine and resolute in their refusal to provide any documentation whatsoever of their whimsical cancellation of my hire date.
I called the offices of the legal firm that sort of owns High Times, suggesting a class action suit based on the presumptive nature of drug testing. They dismissed the idea out of hand, saying “Where’s the class in this class action suit?” I responded that given that every federal, state, county, and city job hire involves a drug test, as well as far too many private enterprises, a half-page ad in High Times itself might gather a class. They laughed.
I was exploring the lunar surface using some sort of exotic skid-steerer (like a Bobcat or a tank) in search of seismic beacons that had been left behind by a previous exploratory team that had found water but mysteriously vanished shortly thereafter. The beacons formed a trail to the reservoir. There were plenty of distractions. Against The Day was the biggest and the best distraction. Pynchon had finally topped Gravity’s Rainbow. I did a deep web search on Dr. Norbert Kraft, the director of my simulated lunar excursion. He’s a Pynchon character, for sure. He does good work, it pertains to our human situation here. It’s about teamwork.
What I did get to say in my scant 350 words was that Pynchon is the last and greatest voice of the Beats, despite his absence from the direct clique we have been trained to identify as “Beats.” It’s jazz: you either get it or you don’t. That was enough. I also indicated as clearly as I could under such constraints that Against The Day was the most beautiful work of literature I had ever experienced. It is.
His latest, Inherent Vice, is the most accessible novel he has written. Weighing in at a mere 369 pages, it can be read easily over the course of a weekend and involves no complex mathematical formulae or hypotheses. Set mainly in Los Angeles in 1970 with the Manson Family trials looming in the background, the book is a wild romp through the paranoid landscape of post-‘60s America. It’s very cinematic, the narrative doesn’t pose any particular challenge to the average reader and it would make a great movie with, say, Terry Gilliam or Oliver Stone directing. My first take on it was “Holy Shit! Pynchon has written a Tim Dorsey novel!”, and that isn’t too far from the truth. But Inherent Vice is much more than that.
It might be the herald of a whole new genre: psychedelic noir. Kinky Friedman and the aforementioned Tim Dorsey have both skimmed the waters here, but neither of them has produced anything as thoroughly soaked in dope as this thing, and Pynchon’s well-known talent for depicting the vast Manichean world of unseen forces bidding for dominion over souls it at its clearest and sharpest here. His ability to shift effortlessly from slapstick comedy to profound and lyrical longing is his territory exclusively. No one else does this, and I’m not sure that anyone else can. Here’s an excerpt of noir prose that is completely worthy of Chandler or Hammett:
“Sunrise was on the way, the bars were just closed or closing, out in front of Wavos everybody was either at the tables along the sidewalk, sleeping with their heads on Health Waffles or in bowls of vegetarian chili, or being sick in the street, causing small-motorcycle traffic to skid in the vomit and so forth. It was late winter in Gordita, though for sure not the usual weather. You heard people muttering to the effect that last summer the beach didn’t have summer till August, and now there probably wouldn’t be any winter till spring. Santa Anas had been blowing all the smog out of downtown L.A., funneling between the Hollywood and Puente Hills on westward through Gordita Beach and out to sea, and this had been going on for what seemed like weeks now. 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. The state liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles were coming unstuck, is how dry the air was. Liquor store owners could be filling those bottles with anything anymore. Jets were taking off the wrong way from the airport, the engine sounds were not passing across the sky where they should have, so everybody’s dreams got disarranged, when people could get to sleep at all. In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.”
The protagonist here is Doc Sportello, a hippie PI who is coming up on 30 and smokes pot like a rasta. His ex-girlfriend reappears after a long absence seeking his help in securing the well-being of a billionaire real estate developer she’s been having an affair with, whose wife may be hatching a kidnap plot or worse to get her hands on the loot. Sportello takes the job, and thereon hangs the tale.
The cast of characters includes Nazoid ex-cons and bikers, one with a serious fixation on Ethel Merman, surfers and surf musicians (including a zombie surf band), bent cops, heroin smugglers, black militants and FBI agents, COINTELPRO informants and provocateurs, Vegas mobsters, a reanimated dead junkie, sinister dentists, an LSD guru whose main squeeze is fixated on the lost continent of Lemuria (which may or may not be resurfacing off the coast of L.A.), and a mysterious ship called The Golden Fang, the most demented and enigmatic plot device in the book.
Pynchon’s knowledge of surf music is encyclopedic, he very nearly pounds us with it here, and I was delighted to see that he shares my fondness for the Bonzo Dog Band, one of the truly great under-appreciated acts of the period. His depiction of the creeping menace of corporate fascism encroaching upon the various avatars of freedom at play in the book speaks of personal experience.
It’s a hugely comic novel that ends on a wistful, tragic note lost in the fog, out on the freeway, the procession of the preterite, not sure where they’re going, not sure where they are. It’s a love letter to the Sixties, a wake, an elegy to doomed aspirations and thwarted idealism, but it speaks to our present condition directly and clearly, with an open heart. Nobody does it better.
ALAN CABAL lives in Mountain View, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org