Secular Exiles & Prodigal Returns

“One Groove’s Difference”: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

“Maybe the Golden Fang had sailed on to its fate, gathering those who hadn’t found their way to shore deeper into whatever complications of evil, indifference, abuse, despair they needed to become even more themselves. Whoever they were. Maybe Shasta had escaped all that. Maybe she was safe.” — Larry “Doc” Sportello, entertaining ‘maybes’

Practically speaking, the business of a private eye arises from the exercise of paranoia. To see around appearances, you might entertain every manner of phantom notion, and it’s only as false leads drop away that the truth will become isolated, more often than not cloaked in silence. Ain’t that just the way with evil? Only in cartoon life would a Bernie Madoff, bound in rope, choose to fess up to Scooby and the gang: “Yes, I did it. And here is how. And here is why… woulda got away with it, too, if not for you rascally kids!” Cartoon life, or some kind of spiritual echo chamber, maybe.

The fiction of Thomas Pynchon has always enjoyed an easy relationship to paranoia and cartoons. Evil, too. Inherent Vice, then, his latest novel, a play on the hard-boiled — or seriously baked — detective tale is not such a departure from previous work, even if the edges appear rounded to the naked eye.

Principal in this “glittering mosaic of doubt” figures one Larry “Doc” Sportello, affable stoner and PI, whiteboy afro on his head, huaraches on his feet. A hippie with a gun, he’s a denizen of surf village Gordita Beach, CA, a locale lost in time somewhere between the 60s and 70s. Doc has love for old movies, particularly those starring John Garfield (a blacklisted movie star of the 40s and 50s), and hate for contemporary TV hit The Mod Squad, which he sees propagating the myth of Cop-as-Everyman, paving to the earth the part once played in popular consciousness by PIs.

No matter. Even as a self-conscious member of an endangered species, Doc is more than happy to ask questions about a married real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann, who his “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay happens to be seeing. Of course, the investigation begins at Shasta’s request (“You were always true,” she tells Doc). And when these initial, nearly innocent questions lead to more vexed questions, and the vexed to the outright thorny, Doc doesn’t hesitate (too much) in keeping after the figurative ball, even if he’d rather be watching the Lakers play in the NBA Finals. The trick being to talk to the right people, adopt the right guise, and not forget to pack a few joints.

It doesn’t take long before Mickey and Shasta both have disappeared. So it is that Doc sets out, behind the manner of cool, to identify the agent(s) of evil pulling the strings at a classy outfit called Golden Fang Enterprises. Beyond Gordita Beach and the flagging myth of the American West (the Manson trials provide backdrop to Doc’s pursuit and obsessive fodder for his imaginative life), the investigation comes to center on two persons: Coy Harlingen, revenant surf band sax soloist and Zelig-like chameleon, and Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, investigating officer in the Mickey Wolfmann case and general pain in Doc’s ass.

Not long after Shasta’s disappearance, Doc receives a call from Coy Harlingen’s would-be widow, Hope: she’s not sure that her husband’s really dead. Married with a child, they were stuck in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of addiction and longing. Heroin to her represented “freedom — from that endless middle-class cycle of choices that are no choices at all.” And when Doc catches up to him, Coy sees it nearly the same way: “We’d get fucked up and just sit there and go, ‘We’re draggin each other down, what’re we gonna do?’ and then end up doing nothing…” The answer, it seems, was provided by Golden Fang Enterprises: fake his own death, and Coy could become a well-paid counter-subversive. “A spy… a snitch, a weasel,” is how Coy, in self-hatred, sees it. “A very well-paid actor,” is what the guys in the suits call it, “and without groupies or paparazzi or know-nothing audiences to worry about.” When they sweetened the offer to include a set of false teeth, Coy, with his heroin-ravaged choppers, was sold. Only now he finds himself cut off, adrift between feelings for his wife and child, and the duty he’s bound to fulfill:

Doc knew that tone of voice and hated it. It reminded him of too many vomit-spattered toilets, freeway overpasses, edges of cliffs in Hawaii, always pleading with men younger than himself distraught with what they were so sure was love. It was actually why he’d quit doing matrimonials.

On the other hand, there is Bigfoot Bjornsen. In so far as a spouse can be seen as a constant companion who incessantly reminds you of your shortcomings, Doc’s might as well be his badge-toting doppelganger, “the LAPD’s own Charlie Manson,” as Doc puts it, “the screamin evil nutcase right at the heart of that li’l cop kingdom.” Everywhere Doc goes, Bigfoot seems to follow soon after, and soon enough, it becomes unclear whether Bigfoot is trailing Doc, or leading him.

Haunted by Hunter S. Thompson’s “high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back,” or lost idealism of the 60s, Inherent Vice culminates in meditation on the collective, more genuine life that once seemed close enough to touch, just a people’s movement away from realization. A friend of Doc’s has arrived at the myth of a vanished civilization to represent something akin to this disappearing dream. About the lost city, Lemuria, Doc later reflects:

People in this town saw only what they’d all agreed to see, they believed what was on the tube or in the morning papers half of them read while they were driving to work on the freeway, and it was all their dream about being wised up, about the truth setting them free. What good would Lemuria do them? Especially when it turned out to be a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember.

Which is a lot of weight for any hard-boiled — or seriously baked — detective tale to bear.

“The Ballad of Lost Children”: Home by Marilynne Robinson

“It is the desire of the tattered moth for the shining star that has brought me home, little sister.” — Jack

The prodigal observances run like this: “I’m sorry,” he says. Followed shortly by the dissonant smile, or a surprised laugh (as if to ask: how did this happen? Or, where did I go awry?). Maybe even a hand raised to hide his face, touching “the nick of scar” beneath his eye. An action taken time and again, with nearly the regularity of those sanctified by Sunday ritual.

His believing sister’s unvarying response: a generosity of tears.

In her most recent novel, Home, Marilynne Robinson has set herself the task of creating a work of lasting import that lives up to its title, a tall order if ever there was one. After more than twenty years of waiting since the release of Housekeeping, we readers have been fortunate enough to receive in the past five years the critical and popular success Gilead and, now, as of fall 2008, its sister fiction, also set in Iowa of 1956.

It is almost beside the point to say that she succeeds.

Like a fissure running across the novel’s pages the prodigal observances appear with such regularity (“I’m sorry,” he says, with that smile or that laugh, that shame-covering hand, the finger raised to touch the nick of scar) that some readers — one fresh from the work of Thomas Pynchon, for example — may find their hearts thundering with impatience at the page’s staid serenity, burning with a desire to exclaim, ‘For crying out loud, man! Stop it!’ But he can’t hear you, Robinson’s protagonist, and that is exactly the point. Jack is alone, and deeply so.

More properly, Jack is John Ames Boughton, son of the reverend Robert Boughton, who for years has served as the Presbyterian minister in the small, middle-American (and fictional) town of Gilead. The name “John Ames” comes from Boughton’s lifelong friend, the still active Congregationalist minister (whose memoirs to his young son comprise the full text of Gilead). Ames, reinvigorated by a late marriage to a much younger woman named Lila (having lost his first wife in childbirth) and the arrival of a son, Robby (named after the elder Boughton), claims to be able to picture his ailing friend with “that lace bonnet sitting on the top of [his] head,” decked as he once was in the threads of infancy. The two men meet on a near weekly basis, the ambulatory Ames arriving at Boughton’s house to discuss the concerns of his congregation, as well as the pressing matters of the day, at least as they register to the two old friends: “Eisenhower or Dulles or baseball or Egypt.”

“Egypt will have consequences,” Boughton declares.

On politics, Ames simply avers, “Stevenson is a very fine man, no doubt,” meaning that he will never vote for him. Boughton, of course, sees it the other way.

Newly arrived on the scene is Boughton’s youngest child Glory (there are eight Boughton children in all). At thirty-eight, she has just returned from a protracted engagement that failed: the man was already married, a secret she keeps from her father; one night she deposited over four hundred of their letters in the sewer. Glory is surprised by the transformation in her father, ambivalent about the role she is expected to play in his house (caretaker to both him and the family trappings, his expectation being that she will maintain it like a museum, with pieces that include: “the table and sideboard with their leonine legs and belligerently clawed feet, like some ill-considered, doily-infested species of which they were the last survivors”). In Old Boughton the ravages of age are in plain view, and yet the sight of him is not without passing beauty: “His hair had been brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist given off by the endless work of dreaming.” Much of Glory’s father’s time is spent in agonizing on the well-being of Jack, whom neither he nor Glory has seen in twenty years.

Then he is there on the front porch, the handful of false cues that he might soon arrive instantly forgiven. The well spoken son of a preacher man, Jack has been shedding skins now for years, most recently in the restorative embrace of a woman named Della, with whom he lived for some time in St. Louis. This confession he makes to Glory. Della, who is black, has recently been taken up by her father and brothers to return to the family home in Memphis; Jack’s only means of communicating his longing for her is through letters, which go unanswered.

Wearied and worn by the world, Jack remains adamant in his refusal to accept his father’s faith, “I wished very much at the time that I could have been, you know, a hypocrite. But I just didn’t have it in me. My one scruple. And it has cost me dearly.” When Glory invests in a television for the three relative strangers to gather around, conversation runs like mercury from the tried and true to an underlying strife more difficult to address with politesse: for example, recent events in Montgomery, Alabama. Or the murder of Emmett Till. As father and son vie over social outrages that demand redress (the son’s cause) and the state of the younger’s soul (the father’s), Glory, in her abundance of empathy, seeks to ensure nothing more than peace of mind for them both. This, in spite of her own lingering emotions, a feeling of unease at occupying her father’s house, of futility at expending further effort on Jack, who can be, to say the least, difficult. “I really am nothing,” he tells her. “Nothing, with a body. I create a kind of displacement around myself as I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble.” And, again and again, he makes the prodigal observances.

As students of American history, we know that Gilead — small town middle America — will soon change forever (on the light side, check out Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” on the dark, Nick Reding’s “Methland,” and somewhere in between, Ron Power’s “Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore”). The fires that animate Jack’s passion will consume the town where he feels he cannot remain. Old Boughton and Ames debate whether God’s existence in the universe allows for the possibility that a person might change (“A person can change,” Lila declares, “Everything can change”). While, steadfastly, Glory keeps watch, making the gentlest observations of her wayward brother:

That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.

Jeff Price is a freelance writer and editor. He held the position of Associate Editor at Electric Literature in 2009. Find him here.

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