In Wonder Valley, drifters of various stripes make jaunts out west. They fantasize about the vast oases of the Mojave Desert, the soothing crashes of waves along the Pacific coastline, the redemption that comes with one’s arrival in the City of Angels. They expect to see the light — because there, right above them, is the SoCal sun, beating down with enough heat and brightness to force the catharsis right out of them.
The novel, written by Ivy Pochoda (Visitation Street), begins in 2010 with the audacious sequence of a young man running naked along the L.A. freeway, zipping by commuters stuck in traffic. It’s liberating but disruptive, rhythmic yet bizarre. That dissonance is reflected in the way certain observers — a mother and son headed to the beach in a stolen car, a lawyer suffocating in the tightness of his vehicle — absorb the scene. Pochoda’s touch is deft here, peeking into intimate spaces before zooming back out to the surreality of the action beyond them. She introduces a collection of characters, each with a specific destination in mind, and stays with them patiently throughout the novel, unpeeling the reasons why they’re on the move.
The story spins out in several directions from the prologue. In 2006, a young woman harboring secrets wanders onto a desert commune where she encounters a dysfunctional family, while a pair of career criminals on the run hole up nearby; later in 2010, the aforementioned lawyer chases the aforementioned nude runner through Los Angeles before getting caught, and a Brooklyn-born teenager who’d just spent years in juvie tracks his mother down across the country. Each subplot is shrouded in mystery, though they all beg the same question: What are these people running from? Their stories collide, if only briefly — that their narratives are all entwined feels cosmic.
In that sense, Wonder Valley is a panorama of despair and yearning, shifting between timelines and locations in its portrait of individuals bound by the desire to escape, forget, and reinvent. It works in contrasts, between the grimy concrete of Skid Row and the pristine beaches of Malibu — between reality and fantasy. It’s a California novel through and through: a collection of character studies drenched in enough sunlight to illuminate the harshest of truths.
Pochoda’s sharpness as a writer comes through in her patience. Early on, it’s clear that, as with many books that share Wonder Valley’s structure, vignettes will overlap and mysteries will eventually be pieced together. Yet uniquely, revelations arrive without announcement; pivotal moments quietly creep into paragraphs. The ending is magnificently unexpected, almost ingenious, and the surprise factor sneaks up on you. Its subtle brilliance is just that — subtle.
Pochoda demonstrates range in her vivid illustrations of diverse communities. They’re threaded with an underlying melancholy — blots of darkness spotlighted by the blue sky. The intense dry heat of the Mojave, the collection of smells of Skid Row, and the agonizing mellowness of Beverlywood all emanate from her crisp, poetic descriptions. (In one case, a little too much: A chicken slaughter scene early on is not for the squeamish.)
There’s heartbreak and disappointment to spare in Wonder Valley, and every character is rendered with empathy. Each element in the story has texture, from the weather to the architecture to the people inhabiting it. Pochoda lets no one off easy, and, at times, she gets a little carried away sketching out the idiosyncrasies of her setting. But crucially, Wonder Valley has an innate understanding of what makes hiding from home, or taking a leap into the unknown, or ripping off your clothes and racing through traffic, naked, such deeply human impulses. The book tells an essential truth: Everybody’s running from something. B+