[A bloggy present for my summer grad students, laboring away this lovely weekend on papers for our class, “Pynchon’s California and the Promise of Theory”]
The foggy ending of Inherent Vice is a favorite California dreamscape for Pynchonistas, but this time through I spotted an internal echo I hadn’t seen before. At novel’s end, Doc like Oedipa in Lot 49 awaits revelation:
For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead. (369)
There are plenty of candidates for that “something else,” from the Golden Fang to Shasta Fay (who’s actually there with Doc in the chickenshit romance version of the scene in the movie), but the phrasing also reaches back to another minor savant in the novel, Sauncho Smilax, the maritime lawyer who plays Skipper to Doc’s Gilligan and knows all about inherent vice. His gorgeous “sea of time” speech (341) may, it’s true, only be in Doc’s dream or the movie’s voice-over, but when the two hopeful desperadoes sail out after the good ship Golden Fang / Preserved, they discover, at a typically Pynchonian angle to reality, another kind of ending. Here is what they see:
“Something,” Sauncho said.
Their short boat trip takes them to a place from which Doc’s beach town looks different, smaller, and less threatening:
Gordita Beach emerged from the haze, gently flaking away in the salt breezes, the ramshackle town in a spill of weather-beaten colors, like paint chips at some out-of-the-way hardware store, and the hillside up to Dunecrest, which Doc had always thought of, especially after nights of excess, as steep, a grade everybody sooner or later wiped their clutch trying to get up and out of town on, looking from out here strangely flat, hardly there at all. (354)
In the otherworld of Ocean, flatland problems look, well, flat. At first only surfers float alongside Doc and Sauncho, “bobbing up and down, like Easter Island in reverse” (355). It’s a brief trip outside History, punctuated by a vision of a fleet young hippie outrunning a lumbering CHP motorcycle cop on the sand.
Coming around the corner of Palos Verdes Point and into the domain of uber-baddie Crocker Fenway reveals the promised treasure, Sauncho’s nautical obsession, and the boat that may hold all the novel’s secrets:
…there in the distance, out from San Pedro with all her staysails and jibs set, blooming like a cubist rose, came the schooner. The look on Sauncho’s face was of pure unrequited love. (355-56)
Fantasy is always pursued by History in Pynchon (or is it the other way around?), so it’s not surprising to see a Coast Guard cutter and DOJ vessel chasing the ship. Three shadowy figures — members of the Tristero? Coy, Hope, and Amethyst? some Trinity or other? — flee before the ship is impounded, but the crucial encounter isn’t with the Man but with the Wave:
Doc put the sets rolling in at them from the northwest at thirty and maybe even thirty-five feet from crest to trough — curling massively, flaring in the sun, breaking in repeated explosion….It was St. Flip of Lawndale’s mythical break, also known to old-timers as Death’s Doorstill. (357-58).
St Flip of Lawndale, one of my favorite characters in the novel who didn’t make it into the movie, is also the Gordita Beach-er whose flit to Maui opened up a place for Shasta to crash upon re-entry, which wave-decorated pad also hosts her strange reunion scene with Doc in a day outside of History. With his piece of the True Board and surfer’s understanding of what it means to walk on water, St Flip might represent a happy if opaque to Doc engagement with the watery half of beachy Gordita. To Doc, the wavespray inhibits vision, makes it hard to see the revelation he craves:
Something [sic] was also happening to the light, as if the air ahead of them were thickening with unknown weather. Even with binoculars it was hard to keep the schooner in view. (357)
It doesn’t last. It never does. The Coast Guard takes the ship. But smiling Sauncho has one last trick to play, the possibility of a “legal marine policy” (359) which, if no shadowy owners come into the light to claim the Fang/Preserved for a year and a day, might pass the beloved ship to a devoted owner. “If there’s litigation,” Saunch sez, “I’ll be in on it” (359).
Maybe that’s the best we can hope for?
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