Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice begins when Shasta Fay Hepworth arrives at the Gordito Beach residence of her former boyfriend, private investigator Doc Sportello. She persuades Sportello to save her lover, Mickey Wolfmann, from a plot to kidnap him and install him in a sanitarium. As Sportello begins his investigation of Wolfmann, an influential real-estate developer with connections to both criminal and police sources, Sportello is knocked unconscious and awakens to discover that one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards has been murdered and Sportello is the prime suspect.
After his lawyer secures his release from jail, Sportello is contacted by Hope Harlingen, the widow of a saxophone player in a local surf band, who asks him to investigate her husband’s suspicious drug overdose, and by Black Nationalist Kahlil Tariq, who is seeking an ex-convict who owes him money. A massage parlor attendant warns Sportello to beware of the Golden Fang and tells him that Coy Harlingen, the saxophone player, is not really deceased but is also looking for the private eye. A pair of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents then detain Sportello as part of an investigation of Black Nationalists, who they believe have kidnapped Wolfmann.
Soon, Sportello’s investigations spread in all directions, and the mystery of the Golden Fang deepens. Sportello wanders through Los Angeles and local beach communities, has random sexual encounters with various women, and ingests one drug after another. Before long, he discovers a counterfeiting ring, anonymous telephone threats are made to his parents, Wolfmann and Hepworth disappear, and new theories surface about the bodyguard’s killing. He eventually discovers that the saxophonist is being held against his will in a drug rehabilitation center and that the gang that murdered the bodyguard is actually a militia financed by the police department to do its dirty work. Sportello becomes a suspect in a second murder, this time of a dentist he interviewed, and at every turn he is rousted by police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who pressures Sportello to provide him with information.
Following yet another request to find a missing person, Sportello heads to a North Las Vegas casino and spies two FBI agents escorting Wolfmann off the premises. He further discovers that the developer has begun building a free-housing site in the desert, has redirected his assets into restoring the dilapidated casino, and has returned to his wife. Back at the beach, Sportello learns of a loan shark, Adrian Prussia, who murders adversaries with police cooperation and is also the killer of Bjornsen’s former partner. When Sportello investigates this new lead, he is abducted and drugged. He escapes, kills Prussia, and is then rescued by Bjornsen, who plants heroin in Sportello’s car to incur the wrath of drug dealers. After negotiating a return of the drugs, Sportello secures his parents’ and the saxophone player’s safety, and the novel ends with a few mysteries solved but many more still unresolved.
As this brief summary indicates, Thomas Pynchon has created another intricate, byzantine plot replete with twists, blind alleys, and often-inconclusive conclusions. Whether the plot complications result from the author’s affection for convoluted structures or from the conventions demanded by detective fiction is a moot point: In the detective story, Pynchon finds a perfect structure for his own fictional predilections, which typically involve plots nestled within scores of other plots that may or may not be connected.
In many respects, Inherent Vice is the fitting culmination of Pynchon’s tendency, in nearly all his other six novels, to involve characters in mysteries that force them to venture into an often-threatening world, decipher seemingly arcane clues, and arrive at a condition of precarious equipoise. An argument can be made that this novel’s twisted plot is simply the product of Sportello’s hopelessly twisted and drug-addled brain. By all accounts, Sportello is a generally lazy, irresponsible slacker who prefers to spend time with other misfits in a drugged haze. His career, what there is of it, exists largely as an afterthought. However, as enticing as this...
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