Reading Ivy Pochoda's Wonder Valley is like ..., is like ..., is like what?
It's like being at a neighborhood 4th of July block party on a hot sweltering night, and somebody hands you a string of firecrackers and you look down at them and you see that they're already lit, and you realize: this is utterly fascinating, but I think it's about to blow up in my hands!
Wonder Valley is so startling, so vivid, so hard-core, that it may have been a long time since you read a book like this.
I found it to be simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, glorious and tragic all at once.
Pochoda's work reminds me of the best of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard in so many ways: larger than life characters, mixtures of all walks of life, gritty realism, and a marvelous sense of place.
Wonder Valley's main action centers around a varied cast of characters (desert rats, hippies, street preachers, entertainment executives suffering mid-life crises, failed college athletes, ex-cons, loners on the run) who end up in and around a cult compound in the Southern California desert, and then follows the light trails of these sparkling souls as they bounce around the Southern California scene following the events at the compound, illuminating the past in a blistering 48 hours of non-stop action.
What really makes the book work is that Pochoda totally groks desert rats.
Britt had met Cassidy and Gideon that morning at the Joshua Tree farmers' market where they were selling chickens inexpertly sealed in plastic. While they rambled on about the beauty of the soul and the health of the spirit to their customers, the birds' blood leaked over their forearms, running down their lariats and beads.
They were both the sort of dirty tan that comes from too much time in the desert, like the sand had worked its way into their skin. Their hair was long, dreaded in places with beads that often vanished in the tangled mess. Cassidy wore two necklaces -- one with a large feather, the other with a tooth. Gideon had a bird claw on a leather braid. Life is beautiful even in death, he'd said when he caught Britt looking at it.
And, later, as others arrive:
They drove north. The road rose and fell. The little cabins were spread out at almost regular intervals just out of sight of one another. Some had been duded up, fenced in and expanded, turned into compounds with jury-rigged satellites and dirt yards filled with old pickups and rusted trailers. But many sat empty, their windows boarded up or missing.
"Would you look at that?" Sam said as they passed a cinder-block cabin, its doors and windows gaping holes.
"Yeah," Blake said, "I'm looking."
There was nothing special about the jackrabbit homestead the Samoan settled on except that it was unremarkable -- a pale cinder-block structure with plywood for windows and a rusted chain-link fence. The interior was a single room with a battered mattress and a good-for-nothing bed frame. A black-and-white TV lay on its side, the screen spidered, the rabbit ears bent in on themselves.
I love "jackrabbit homestead," and I really love the way Pochoda quietly ties it together with the "rabbit ears" of the old television. Somehow I had never heard the phrase "jackrabbit homestead" before, but of course it's well-known: Jackrabbit Homestead: Artists, Off-Roaders, and the American Dream Writ Miniature:
One of the many land acts designed to dispose of "useless" federal lands from the public domain, the Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to five acres of public land for recreational purpose or use as a home, cabin, camp, health convalescent, or business site to able-bodied U.S. citizens. If the applicant made the necessary improvements to his or her claim by constructing a small dwelling within three years of the lease, the applicant could file for a patent--the federal government's form of a deed--after purchasing the parcel for the appraised price (on average $10 to $20 an acre) at the regional land office. This highly popular mid-century homestead movement reflects the quintessential American desire to claim territory and own a piece of the land even if the property in question is virtually "worthless" from an economic perspective.
(Oh, man, check out the pictures at that link!)
But back to Wonder Valley. Marvelous though its sense of place is, Wonder Valley is mostly interested in how people become to be who they are, and how they decide where they want to be, and, above all, how one thing sometimes just leads to another:
It was a maddening tangle, a complex and horrifying puzzle, figuring out when she had first put her foot wrong, and which foot, and where. And how that led to all the things that put her in that car with Andy and that car rolling down the ravine and killing him or hurting him or nothing at all. Because there must have been a first error, something that set the whole disaster in motion.
You can find this moment in every blown match, that split-second what-if that might have sent the ship sailing in the right direction -- the return that didn't sail long, the second serve that clipped the line, the volley that skimmed the net, the look you didn't give your coach, the cheer from the stands you ignored. All of it discoverable, each wrong decision easily pinpointed, addressed, advised against on the next go-round. If you hadn't done that, you would have avoided the entire landslide. The descent into chaos. So it had to be there, that initial mistake.
Or, really, is that how it works? Is life just like training for your tennis match (Pochoda's bio lists her background as "a former professional squash player," surely not a common avenue to Next Great Novelist)?
I think not, and I think Pochoda knows not, herself:
"I promise you the first time I saw him was when he was running down the freeway. Then I got out of my car and chased him."
The same damn question he's been trying to answer for twenty-four hours. But the beer is helping. "Because I hate my job. Because I should have gone running over the weekend, but instead I drank too many beers and pretended to be interested in my daughter's friends' parents and their school fund-raiser. Because I have to attend the damn fund-raiser to make up for the fact that my wife and I are in the bottom tier of contributors to a school I already pay too much for my daughter to attend."
Tony's finally able to admit to himself that he had been unable to catch up to the runner. He didn't have the strength for that final acceleration, that last kick. Or maybe he did but he was too complacent, too happy to trail behind the guy instead of reaching him. Coasting, almost. Doing just enough but failing at the final hurdle. He still runs regularly but he's losing ground, letting go of the college runner he used to be. He's growing solid. Soon he'll be grounded like the commuters stuck in their cars he'd left behind on the 110.
"He's growing solid."
That's it, right there. It's that moment when what could be, what was dreamt, what was envisioned, shimmers and fades, and what is left is what is. Jackrabbit homesteads in Wonder Valley.
Pochoda's talent is immense and her vision is vivid. But most importantly, her stories and characters ring true.
I hope she writes many more books, each as wonderful in its own way as Wonder Valley