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)


Review: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

21 January 2008

wintersbone.jpgDaniel Woodrell was one of the writers to feature in John Williams Back to the Badlands . Williams describes Winter’s Bone as “…a wonderful book, as beautiful and harsh and as indelibly of its people as an Appalachian folk song.” This is a pretty good description of the book. There is a lyrical quality to the writing that has it hovering somewhere above stark reality but very much reflecting it. It seems to be done so easily that you know it must have taken a lot of hard work and a lot of skill to achieve something this good.

In Winter’s Bone, sixteen year-old Ree finds that her father, who left her to care for her two younger brothers and her mother, has put up the house for bail, and they will lose it if he doesn’t show up for court. Ree’s search for him takes her through the valleys and creeks of the Ozarks, to friends and enemies, most of them related in some way or another. These people seem to exist on the edge of society, outside the law, but with their own code.

The story is rooted in the people and places, and seems timeless. There is a looming, gray presence of winter – “The sky came into the valley low, glum and blustery, about to bust open and snow.” Ree is a Dolly, of the clan that inhabits these places:

There were two hundred Dollys, plus Lockrums, Boshells, Tankerslys, and Langans, who were basically Dollys by marriage, living within thirty miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful to kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.

Ree’s father, Jessup, is rough Dolly, a crank chef, which seems to have taken over from moonshine as the illegal drug of choice, and he has messed up. She tries to find him through Uncle Teardrop – “He was a nightmare to look at but he’d torn through a fistful of appealing wives. – and then through Thump Milton – “a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.” She finds violence and pain, but perseveres. The outcome is as bleak as the life being led in this isolated culture, but does suggest some light at the end of Ree’s tunnel.

theonesyoudo.jpgTo follow up on Winter’s Bone, I tried The Ones You Do, that was written in 1992, and was not disappointed. The writing reminded me of George V Higgins and Elmore Leonard in the way that the dialogue tells the story of John X Shade and his family. John X and his young daughter have to leave town quickly after her mother absconds with Lunch Pumphrey’s money. They head for St Bruno, where John X’s sons from a previous marriage all live. Lunch follows. Lunch is not a pleasant fellow. As he tells a cuckolded husband “..when you get aged and rackety and think back across your entire life span, why, it ain’t the ones you do you regret, it’s the ones you don’t.” John X has a similar sort of view, but not as nasty, and pretty much knows what has to happen. The story is not complex, but the quality of the writing makes it a joy to read. I’m now going to track down all of Daniel Woodrell’s other books.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, published by Sceptre (2006), ISBN (hardback): 0 340 89797 x

The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell, published by No Exit Press (1994), ISBN: 1-84243-049-1

Other books by Daniel Woodrell – Under the Bright Lights, Woe to Live On (aka Ride With the Devil), Muscle for the Wing, Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir, Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister

Review: Hidden River by Adrian McKinty

8 January 2008

hiddenriver.jpgNot far into Hidden River and you start to have a bit of sense of deja vu – haven’t we read something like this before from Adrian McKinty? Well, yes, sort of. There are parallels with Dead I Well May Be, McKinty’s first book. Both books are about Northern Irishmen fleeing their troubles by going to the USA and ending up in more trouble, violent trouble. In the earlier book the protagonist lost his dole eligibility through benefit fraud, so goes off to New York to work for an Irish gangster. In Hidden River, Alex Norton has resigned from the RUC after a meteoric rise to drug squad detective, is addicted to heroin, and gratefully takes the opportunity provided by a grieving family to go off an investigate the death of a school days girlfriend in Denver, before Scotland Yard can involve him in a corruption inquiry, or the corrupt cops silence him.

Alex’s friend and former colleague, John Campbell, comes along with him, and they make a start on investigation the death of Victoria Patawasti, who had worked for an environment organisation and had apparently been killed in a robbery. Of course she wasn’t, there is something dodgy about the environment organisation – its founders are rich boys with ambitions, one of whom has a very beautiful wife. Alex and John tend to mess things up, there’s a body so they need to scarper, and – amazing luck – they find a great place to hide. Violence, and sex, follows them around. Alex makes some progress in his investigation, but screws up (in a number of ways), is nearly killed, escapes back to Ulster.

The hidden river is the Saraswati, that flows only in heaven but comes to the earth at the point where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, and it is here that your sins can be bathed away, wiping them clean for seven generations backward. Alex ends up there, and it helps him realise a vital clue involving another hidden river, a river that has dried to a trickle and so reveals Victoria’s killer. So justice of a sort is done, finally.

As in his first book, McKinty’s prose is sharp, well-paced, and compelling. But I think I like Dead I Well May Be better because it was bleaker, more noir, and its Michael Forsyth was somehow more real than Alex Norton. I’m looking forward to reading The Dead Yard, which picks up on his travails.

Hidden River, published by Serpent’s Tail, 2006. ISBN: 1 85242 472 9; ISBN 13: 978 1 85242 472 5

Other books by Adrian McKinty – Dead I Well May Be, The Dead Yard, Bloomsday Dead

Review: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

4 November 2007

tapping_the_source1.jpgTapping the Source was written in 1984 and marked the beginning of Kem Nunn’s “surfing noir” novels. The others are The Dogs of Winter, previously reviewed, and Tijuana Straits. I was pleased that I did persist with Kem Nunn, and I can see why this book was a National Book Award First Fiction finalist. It is much better than its successors, with a plot and characters that are more sustainable.

The story is about a young man’s search for what all young men seek – his self. Ike Tucker leaves his life as a motorbike mechanic in the California desert to look for his sister. The only clues to where she might be come from a young surfer who says she was at Huntington Beach, went to Mexico with three men – Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs and Frank Baker – but didn’t come back. Ike sets off for Huntington Beach. He meets Preston, a former gun surfer, now a biker, who teaches Ike to surf and tries to steer him away from his quest (since, of course, he is bound up in it). Ike finds Hound Adams and the rest, and gets sucked into the violence, sex, drugs, porn and surfing scene of Huntington Beach. It turns out that Preston and Hound used to own a surf shop together, using the brand “Tapping the Source” on their boards for a while, but they made some bad moves, and bad friends, things went wrong, at least two girls died. Ike is heading downhill, but meets Michelle, and begins to realise that there is more.

It all comes together as the events reach a tragic climax – Ike recognises something about life and himself, and he finds the key that conclusively links his sister to the events that are unfolding:

It struck him this morning that what he was doing was not separated into different things. Paddling out, catching rides, setting up. Suddenly it was all one act, one fluid series of motions, one motion even. Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source, but of the source.

At this point, Ike recognises the wreckage of the dream that Preston and Hound had once had, but also that there is hope:

And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed as hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost and it was one great bummer, one long drop with no way back over the top. It was plain now, plainer than it had ever been before, what Preston had wanted him to see here. And he did see it. Preston had been right. There was something here, in this moment, that was worth hanging on to, that was worth building a life around. And he could see it within reach, if he could only break away now, if he could only go and take Michelle with him.

Ike does survive, thanks in part to having a tattoo, people die, not all of them nasties, and he starts to put his life back together, having resolved his quest. To my mind the writing is better than the later books – the magic of surfing is there in all of them, but in Tapping the Source the action is better conveyed and the focus on Ike to convey it makes for a better structure and more tension.

It would be possible to get all analytical and to draw parallels and extract metaphors from this novel about the way in which people screw up themselves and the world, but I think its best left as a good example of a coming-of-age novel, which first novels often are, and to recognise that its a good and effective example. With sufficient nastiness in it to make it noir.

Details: Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-808-7 ISBN-10: 1-56025-808-X

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits.

Review: Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks

24 August 2007

cruelpoetry_cover.jpgBack when I was starting to make crime fiction the main source of my reading, I was strongly influenced by John Williams’ 1991 book, Into the Badlands, about a journey through America talking to crime writers. He met people like Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, James Ellroy, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, George V Higgins, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, James Lee Burke, Gar Haywood, Joe Gores, Eugene Izzi, Joseph Koenig, Nick Tosches, and Andrew Vachss, with cross-references to many more. What was compelling about the book was the way that Williams wove in the locations which are so much part of the writers’ achievements – Elmore Leonard’s Miami and Detroit, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, George V Higgins’ Boston, James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana. Anyway, these and many others now fill my shelves and have given much pleasure. And its not just the combinations of character, place and plot, it’s also the styles and language – Burke’s compelling use of words to describe places and moments and people, and the wonderful ways that both Leonard and Higgins use dialogue to tell the story and fill in the character.

So it was with some interest that I approached Back To The Badlands, in which John Williams recounts his 2005 revisiting of crime writing in the US. Some of it is a rehash of his earlier trip but much of it is new. Williams goes to Washington DC and talks to George Pelecanos, which is interesting because I lived there in the 1980s when a lot of his writing is set. Then its back to Miami, to meet Vicki Hendricks (you see, there is point to this), who he describes as “one of the very few women writing contemporary noir fiction. That’s noir as opposed to hard-boiled or simply crime fiction”. Turns out that Williams is Hendricks’ editor, but what he wrote about her made me put her on the list of people to read. Next was South California and Kem Nunn; Texas for Jesse Sublett and Kinky Friedman (during his campaigning for Governor); Missouri for Dan Woodrell, who Williams describes as “one of the very best writers, in or out of crime fiction, in America”; and finally in Hollywood with Terrill Lankford. Well, Kinky I’ve read, and now Kem Nunn and Dan Woodrell (who is very good), so when I found Vicki Hendricks’ Cruel Poetry in Dymocks I was well pleased. Cruel Poetry is full of sex and death, but it never seems to be sleazy or obsessively violent. Perhaps this is because the prose is clean and clear and the blood and pain is a natural and inevitable consequence of the action and of the characters’ interactions with each other.

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