Inherent Vice is an homage to film noir, with frequent mentions of films featuring John Garfield, and occasional oblique references to Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Even if the novel had nothing else going for it, it serves as a good resource for those intrerested in obscure noir films.
Inherent Vice is a gonzo look at LA at the cusp of the 70s, at a time when the counter culture of the 60s had already lost its lustre thanks to a series of high visibility heroin overdoses and the Manson family. Nearly everyone in the story smokes dope more or less constantly, most especially the hippie longhair stoner PI protagonist, “Doc” Sportello.
Inherent Vice is a vehicle for looking at class, power, and corruption, as exemplified then (and now) in Los Angeles. There is nothing subtle about this: near the end of the book Sportello has a tense conversation with an upper crust crooked establishment type where the class antagonisms are laid bare, with Sportello unconvincingly represents himself as a kind of representative of the working and oppressed classes. Unconvincing, but at least Pynchon tried (or I think he tried: you can never quite tell with Pynchon just what the hell is going on).
There is a ridiculously large number of characters who flit in and out of the story line, and if you can keep track of them all you’re a better reader than I am. This is typical of the pulp fiction style that this novel is based on: lots of characters means lots of red herrings and plenty of opportunity for social commentary. There were plenty of times when I wasn’t quite sure where the main plot was located, and it wasn’t until near the end that I was reminded that, oh yeah! that’s what we were talking about! That’s OK, though: if you’ve ever seen or read The Big Sleep you will be familiar with the form.
Pynchon is usually a pretty tough read, but this novel is an exception. If you read it as straight up pulp fiction and don’t spend too much mental energy trying to figure out what Pynchon is really getting at, you’ll have a good time.