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)