Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin, $16). I had tremendous fun with this 2009 novel when it came out, but it’s stayed in my mind as a vision of ugliness—heroin in hippie L.A. as a vast conspiracy, the scope of which private eye Doc Sportello is only beginning to glimpse when the book ends, which is why there has to be a sequel.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta (Scribner, $15). Inside its 1970s-radicals-gone-underground plot, this novel hides a gleeful, infinitely detailed picture of just how smart a 15-year-old boy can be, especially when he’s obsessed with 1960s music.
When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell (Harvard, $39). A now dream-time, now historical-time adventure, across generations, aimed at discovering a scattered, half-secret America inside the one that made the papers.
Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead (Anchor, $14). I like Whitehead’s vague, depressed lead characters, in The Intuitionist, in John Henry Days, and here—a New York “nomenclature consultant” who goes to a small town to settle a dispute over what it’s going to call itself. What he ends up renaming, or rewriting, is the country—and in a novel that’s so quiet, or wary, that the story seems like an old ballad, as much hummed as written.
Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley (Vision, $7.50). Mosley started his Easy Rawlins series in 1990 with Rawlins in postwar Los Angeles, investigating racism as much as anything else. As the books went on and Mosley moved Rawlins through history, the question loomed up: How was he—or they—going to handle the Watts riots? This was the answer—a book set just after the event, when some people are trying to pretend nothing happened, some are trying to figure out what did happen, and some are putting it into words.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Vintage, $14). I don’t even like L.A., but for some reason it’s figuring heavily in this list. This 1939 novel is the Los Angeles of old buildings that have charm for a reader now, even if they had none for Chandler, and the beginning of the most indelible vernacular phrase-making in modern America.