Review: Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn

12 July 2008

In his surf noir novels, Kem Nunn wrote about surfing and about the people who make up the gritty, ugly and painful reality that seems to be life in California (see previous reviews of Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter).  In Pomona Queen, he gives us a day in the life of Dean Earl, currently a vacuum cleaner salesman, but previously “Johnny Magic”, member of a band.  Dean spends a lot of the day thinking about the past – the days of his great-grandfather, who came out to Pomona Valley to grow oranges, did well, but died early, and the rise and fall of the citrus industry; and also his own earlier days when he played in a band with Rayann, the red-headed girl that he can’t forget.  Life is not really great for Dean right now – he seems to be a pretty good vacuum cleaner salesman, but really he wants money so he can fix up his great-grandfather’s house on the last acre of orange groves in the Valley; he owns it, but it’s currently lived in by his mother and step-father.

However, life takes a turn for the worse when he has to visit a prospective customer in Clear Lake, a place of cheap tract houses in the Valley.  It turns put that the it’s Dan Brown’s place, Dan being a real mean dude, well-known since their school days for causing all sorts of mayhem and mischief, including a few dead and broken bodies.  He recognises Dean as “Johnny Magic” and proposes that he should sing a song for Buddy, Dan’s little brother, who has just been stabbed to death, and whose body is sitting in the back of Dan’s truck in a freezer.  First of all though, Dan has to find out who killed his brother, with the main suspect being the lead singer of a girl band called “Pomona Queen”.  This is also the brand name that Dean’s great-grandfather had chosen and printed for his oranges, but which never got used.  Dean tries to escape, fails, and spends the rest of the day and night in a surreal tour through Pomona and its surrounds, as events unfold and the truth of the stabbing becomes clear, sort of.  By the end, it seems that Dean’s “theology of hope” might have some validity, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Kem Nunn’s writing moves seamlessly from the historical to the present, from Dean’s inner musings to the ever-present danger of dialogue with Dan.  In terms of the writing, this seems to me to be the most assured of Kem’s Nunn’s books that I have read.  It is certainly very funny in a noir sort of way.  I particularly liked the quotes from F P Brackett’s history of the area at the beginning of each chapter, and especially the first, which includes a description of the original inhabitants of Southern California as “…squat, fat and unattractive.  Untrustworthy they were, and ready to kill on provocation or for gain, but not brave or fierce.”  This could just as easily apply to the Southern Californians who inhabit this book.

Pomona Queen by Kem Nunn, published by Washington Square Press (1993, trade paperback), ISBN: 0-671-79877-4

Other books by Kem Nunn – Tapping the Source (1984), Unassigned Territory (1986), The Dogs of Winter (1997), Tijuana Straits (2004)

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Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

8 July 2008

A Dave Robicheaux book from James Lee Burke tends to have a fairly predictable plot – someone does evil things, often involving threats to Dave’s womenfolk; Dave responds with the help of Clete Purcell, often with violence; and there is a lot of agonising over what is the right thing to do, often unresolved.  This book is no different, on the face of it, but given the context – Hurricane Katrina and the desolation it caused, even more so the weaknesses of the human spirit seen in the response to the misery – and especially given the wonderful luminous writing of James Lee Burke, it is new, and it is even more powerful than its predecessors.

Burke’s use of words and the rhythms of the language he puts on the page is pure poetry, and make for compelling reading.  Some examples:

Fear was a gray balloon that floated from place to place, object to object, and each time he tried to confront it, it moved someplace else, transforming the most innocuous of situations into dilemmas that he would never confess to anyone else, lest they know him for the frightened man he was.

and

The world has become an unforgiving prison where the images from a mistaken moment have not disappeared with sleep and instead pursue you wherever you go.

In Dave Robicheaux’ Louisiana, everyone is special, everyone has a story, everyone has come to the place in the world that they now occupy through a series of decisions in which they were not necessarily a willing participant, but the consequences of which they must now confront.  What Burke succeeds in doing is to illustrate the sheer immensity of the impact of Katrina by focusing on the impact it had on the lives of several people when their intersecting stories come together at a point in place and time, and the tragedies and violence, but also the redemption, that unfold as a result.

The key stories are those of an insurance man, Otis Baylor, and his daughter; Bertrand Melancon, a young black “street puke” who had been involved in the rape of the daughter, the death of a priest, and the looting of something valuable from the flooded house of a mob boss.  And of course there is Dave Robicheaux, former New Orleans cop, recovering alcoholic, now working for the New Iberia Sheriff.  The violence and misery of the events they are involved brings forth a figure of evil, Ronald Bledsoe, who threatens Alafair, Dave’s daughter and is determined to get his hands on the valuables that Bertrand has hidden.  Dave continues his lifetime journey through the underworld of crime and pain, trying to do good, often succeeding, but dependent on the goodwill of Sheriff Helen Soileau, his boss, and the dubious assistance of Clete Purcell, his friend.

The fight between good and evil takes place between and within the characters, but there is another force that looms large – the ineradicable fact of the failure of much of the US government to recognise and address the extent of the tragedy and its impact on the people of New Orleans, and the futility and cruelty of those who preyed on their neighbours.  Against this Burke recognises the individuals and groups who, like the US Coastguard, toiled unceasingly to try to save lives and restore some faith in the human spirit.  In introducing the story, Dave Robicheaux recalls the tragedy of Vitenam and says:

When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.

But that was before Katrina.  That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana.  That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

This is the Dave Robicheaux novel you must read.

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, published by Phoenix (2008, paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7538-2316-3

See the Wikipedia entry for James Lee Burke, including bibliography.

Listen to a podcast of Kim Hill’s 5 July 2008 Radio NZ interview with James Lee Burke.


Review: Blind Faith by Ben Elton

3 July 2008

Ben Elton has been getting bleaker and bleaker.  Blind Faith, which is an update of and homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pulls together a number of trends and shows us where they could go.  These include the surveillance society that Britain has become, with CCTV and mobile phones allowing the authorities to follow and trace your movements; ubiquitous use of social media including blogging (compulsory) and always-on video chat rooms; global warming that has flooded London; the attacks on science represented by those who believe in faith alone as the answer; and the dumbing-down of entertainment and social intercourse that Elton has charted so brilliantly, especially in Dead Famous and Chart Throb;  As the blurb has it “In this world, nakedness is modesty, independent thought subversive, and ignorance is wisdom”.

Trafford Sewell is the modern-day Winston Smith, a “civil servant of sorts” who works for NatDat, the National Data bank, which collects and stores “Every single recordable fact about every single person in the country…Every financial transaction, every appearance on a CCTV camera, every click on every computer, every quirk of every retina, every filling in every tooth, captured and entombed in the mainframes of NatDat…”  But Trafford wants some degree of privacy, somewhere he can think thoughts that he doesn’t have to blog about.  He would also like some privacy with his wife Chantorria, and to protect their baby, Caitlin Happymeal, in a world where vaccination is abhorred, and child mortality is rife.  He hesitates to Tube the birthing video and is reprimanded by his Confessor.

Trafford does find a way to think for himself and to learn about ideas and science, and above all about reason.  Just as Winston Smith saw that the proles provided hope for the future, so Trafford sees that reason and the theory of evolution are the way the world will be saved – perhaps not soon enough for him, but the tyranny of the Temple will certainly be overcome.  It would be interesting to spend more time on the parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I said that Ben Elton was bleak, but what reinforces the bleakness is that the awful world of Blind Faith is already happening, in parts, and it is easy to see us going there.  Elton shows us that the trends he works on are related and interconnected, and come down to the importance of ensuring that individual thought can be maintained; that privacy, whether physical, mental or spiritual is essential to us; and that blind faith should not trump reason and science.  There are lessons for how we use technology to support society, and importantly there are unforeseen (but perhaps inevitable) consequences that will arise whenever new ways of communicating and sharing become universal, and subject to human behaviour.

Blind Faith by Ben Elton, published by Black Swan (paperback, 2008), ISBN: 978-0-552-77391-1

Other books by Ben Elton – Stark (1989), Gridlock (1991), This Other Eden (1993), Popcorn (1996), Blast from the Past (1998), Inconceivable (1999), Dead Famous (2001), High Society (2002), Past Mortem (2004), The First Casualty (2005), Chart Throb (2006)