Kem Nunn’s turf is a scary place, a California of the living dead where the misfit descendants of pioneers, fueled by malt liquor and PCP, stumble through nights of violence and pretzel logic. In his first novel, Tapping the Source (a 1984 American Book Award nominee), the focus was on the pitiless transactions of post-Beach Boys surfer culture; the second, Unassigned Territory, featured a group of religious fanatics scrounging for God in the Mojave Desert. In Pomona Queen, set in L.A. County’s Pomona Valley, once a hub of America’s citrus industry ”before the burning of the groves,” the focus is on ”full-blown white trash from the purest of stock” — outlaw bikers.
The plot twists are mordantly original and the prose is an edgy mix of detective-novel detail (”He had a couple of tattoos on his forearms, a pair of Harley-Davidson wings on one shoulder and some fancy blood-red letters on the other that read ‘No Guts No Glory”’) and hipster epigrams (”In the end, one had one’s road and one had one’s burden”), with some archaic rhetoric woven in (”It should be pointed out…”) to give everything a flippant irony.
Earl Dean, a former rock guitarist, now a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman (although in his heart, he fancies himself a ”pilgrim, a seeker after hidden paths”), arrives late one evening at a tract house to demonstrate his wares. The tenant is a hulking psychopath named Dan Brown — ”like the rat, adaptable, clever, impossible to eradicate.” He recognizes Dean (they went to high school together), and immediately shows him a naked body ”stretched out upon a bed of ice in a large red freezer with the words Coca-Cola… in white script across the side.”
The dead man is Dan Brown’s brother, killed earlier that evening in a knife fight, apparently by a woman — the lead singer of a local hardcore band called Pomona Queen. Dean — ”punched, humiliated, and threatened with castration” — is coerced into joining an avenging posse, then bundled into the back of a 1950 Chevrolet panel truck in the dangerous company of three troglodytic bikers bent on murder.
Dean is a credible, likable loser, but his disposition during the frenetic midnight ride to muse at improbable length upon everything from his grandfather’s lost orange grove to the ”secret symbol” of a man’s life breaks the novel’s momentum. At its weakest, Pomona Queen reads like a parody of Robert Stone’s soggy angst, but at its best, it’s a blackly funny thriller, and a peek at the apocalypse.