Some early reviewers of Thomas Pynchon’s seventh novel took its easygoing 372 pages as light diversion, an Elmore Leonard-style caper in the drug-high early 1970s, something Steven Soderbergh could splinter into a feature film. Passages of melancholy and imaginative conversational style are weightier than that. A funny, convoluted counterculture detective story, “Inherent Risk” follows Doc Sportello, a P.I., or “gumsandal,” in search of a missing woman. A welter of side characters materialize, conspiracies emerge, there’s something called the Golden Fang that seems to mean something different in each observer’s eyes, like the latter-day shape-shifting of something called “Al Qaeda.” Philosophy wriggles from the ashes of roaches. Pynchon presages much: The glisten of technical promise in describing a room’s mess of cables and IBM punch-card chads and Gestetner copy machines: here is ARPAnet. The Internet birthing in the uninhaled haze. A joke, as always to avert the gaze. But: “does it know where I can score?” The result is a gentle sadness.
Pynchon’s trademark paranoia is worn lightly, held in the lungs a breath too long, rather than working in maze-like fashion in his heftier books. Still, there’s an atmosphere of sinister innocence, where the characters—runaway millionaires, bikers, surfers, “bikini babes,” musicians, hitmen, dealers, dopers, crooked coppers—live in a fearful world of the moment that does not yet anticipate the 1980s or 2000s, however much Pynchon does. They move in haze and crepuscular dusk, the cheery bustling weight of his lovingly detailed atmosphere keeping post-Chandler convolutions chugging along. It would not be a Pynchon novel without the doodly-oofusness of his perpetual linguistic horsefeathers and jolly neologism. Characters bear the stigmata of his familiar chewy chunky mouth-munch names: Vincent Indelicato? Puck Beaverton? Trillium Fortnight? Japonica Fenway? Scatology is not neglected. Puns redound, even ones as simple as Doc’s seaside homestead of Gordita Beach. (“Fatty” beach is a fine place to light one up.) His favorite breakfast joint is called Wavos, a cheerily lame mingle of “huevos” and “wavy” like “gravy.” Dope jokes chime and echo with humorously convincingly unfunny punchlines.
While the era is observed through cops with “a rep for stick-assisted-pacification” and a woman wearing “Not so much an actual nurse uniform as a lascivious commentary on one,” there is more to the moodiness, with offhand observations like “Doc remembered how Polaroids have no negatives and the life of the prints is limited.” Darker auguries emerge between Tom Wolfe-meets-Krazy Kat-style run-ins: “Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” On first read, there are many passages of assured prose that rise above the familiar Pynchon tricks, tropes and crutches, such as when he describes the infernal, mad-making L.A. wind called the Santa Anas, 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.” By the end, the neon lingua of Pynchon’s noir burns the Greater Southland fog away. (Ray Pride)
by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press, $27, 372 pages