July 2013

Onward. A few months ago, for no particular reason, I decided to read Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, a sort of hippie-noir mystery called Inherent Vice, which is now apparently being made into a movie. I’m not an expert on Pynchon, but it’s the only one of his novels I can even remotely imagine being made into a film, andĀ  it’s still a stretch. I really wish they wouldn’t try, but I also wish Steven Spielberg weren’t working on an “update” of The Grapes of Wrath. Anyway, I also read The Crying of Lot 49 many years ago, and had started reading his much longer Vineland when it came out in 1990 but lost the thread for some reason. So I went back to it and am glad I did. Here’s an energetic review by Salman Rushdie.

Having apparently contracted Pynchon Fever, I’m currently a few hundred pages into the mammoth Gravity’s Rainbow, which is quite a different kettle of fish, and definitely one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It won the National Book Award in 1974, and was also chosen by theĀ  jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction that year, but the Pulitzer Board blocked the award. According to the New York Times, “… Other members of the 14-member board, which makes recommendations on the 18 Pulitzer Prize categories … had described the Pynchon novel during their private debate as ‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘overwritten,’ and in parts ‘obscene.’ One member editor said he had tried hard but had only gotten a third of the way through the 760-page book.” There must be something wrong with me, because I find it addictive.

Meanwhile, back at Vineland, the story is set in 1984 in Northern California, and deals with the fallout of the government repression of the 1960s and 70s antiwar movement and its surrounding counterculture. The “arch-baddie” in the book, as Rushdie notes in his review, is “Brock Vond, Federal prosecutor and psychopath,” who has seamlessly transitioned from harassing political radicals for the Nixon administration to spearheading the Reagan-era Federales’ anti-pot “CAMP” (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) raids in Vineland (a fictionalized Humboldt County). Hijinks ensue, as they say. It’s a fun book; Godzilla (or a close relative) makes a brief appearance, and some of the characters are Thanatoids, technically dead but not quite gone yet.

I was just a little ways into Vineland when it dawned on me that Brock Vond is not just a great, twisted character. He is, or was, a real person, and I’m surprised that some reviewer didn’t pick up on this when the book came out. Vond is pretty clearly based at least in part on Guy Goodwin, a US Attorney who in the late 60s and early 70s roamed the country convening grand juries and using byzantine conspiracy laws to twist the antiwar movement into knots of fear and mutual distrust.

Brock, er, Guy Goodwin

Goodwin himself was said by his friends to be a liberal Democrat opposed to the war in Vietnam, but he sure had a funny way of showing it. He eventually jumped the rails by reacting to criticism of his methods from a fellow US attorney by dragging the guy (drum roll) in front of a special grand jury. That was a bit too Orwellian even for the widely-syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, up until then a Goodwin supporter, who wrote a column suggesting that Goodwin should chill out. And that was that.

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