February 05, 1990 12:00 PM

by Thomas Pynchon

Readers who have waited 17 years for Pynchon’s fourth novel were probably expecting something with the grand sweep of V. or Gravity’s Rainbow. They may be surprised by this relatively modest, blackly comic hipster’s hangover.

Looser and more of a burlesque than Pynchon’s previous works, Vineland follows a group of bizarre characters around the redwoods country of Northern California. It also jumps back to the radical ’60s to set out the events that shaped their present. There are hippie survivors, ghosts in the government’s witness protection program, nefarious law enforcement agents, a female Ninja warrior and a raft of other nifty eccentrics. There are also silly song lyrics, dopers’ pipe dreams, sex fantasies, a paranoid’s sense of history and other customary touches by the reclusive author.

Pynchon is still a master at creating vividly cinematic set pieces, whether comic (a punk band unwittingly hired to play at a big mob wedding) or surreal (Japanese scientists examining a crater that turns out to be a huge saurian footprint). Often the narrative does not track well, as if certain key passages had been left on the cutting-room floor. And while the novel is energetic, entertaining and wildly imaginative, it is not as entrancing as the Pynchon prose of long ago. (Little, Brown, $19.95)

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