By Charles Rammelkamp
Following his debut noir, Nobody Move, winner of the Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards, Philip Elliott’s new novel is likewise set in Los Angeles, the home of so many legendary private detective dramas. This one, too, features colorful losers and endearing anti-heroes and is full of plot surprises and just generally compelling storytelling that makes you want to read on.
Porno Valley takes place at the turn of the century. Elliott juggles three different narratives, one in 1998 involving the ambitious Jemeka Johnson and her not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer but well-meaning partner, Raymond (Ray-Ray) Jones. Another is set a year later in 1999 and involves a pair of small-time-crook junkies, Richie, a sociopath from hell, and his troubled wife Alabama. The final thread takes place in the summer of 2000 and involves a private detective named Mickey O’Rourke. Mickey is 78 and about to embark on the final case of his half-century long career. Mickey is the loneliest guy in the world and touches the reader’s heart with his quiet integrity and modest reflection. He’s been hired to find a missing person, a porn star named Jeffrey Strokes (“his real name”). Jeff is an interesting character in his own right, the most laid back person in the world, winner of three AVN awards, the Oscars of the porn industry. Somebody describes him as being like Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, in The Big Lebowski.
In fact, the novel opens with Mickey meeting his client, Bethany Summers at MidnightPussy Productions in San Fernando Valley, where the nascent porn industry, fueled by the rise of the internet, has become a huge growth business. Jeff has been missing for a year, and hence the three threads will come together, eventually. Bethany is Jeff’s girlfriend – or former girlfriend – both part of the porn world. She’s currently involved with Riccardo, another performer in porn films. It turns out that Riccardo plays a pivotal role in Jeff’s disappearance.
We meet Richie and Alabama in Nevada where they are holding up a diner. They’ve been a Bonnie and Clyde pair for a while but recently had a quickie Nevada wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator. Most importantly, they are supporting heroin habits and want to move up to more lucrative enterprises to support their lifestyle. Elliott is excruciatingly detailed when describing junk sickness and need. It’s almost visceral, reading about Richie’s and Alabama’s craving and Alabama’s OD.
Originally from LA, Richie brings his wife, a rural Alabama girl who left home to escape an abusive father, to the big city to seek their fortune and feed their jones. Los Angeles itself becomes something of a character, its sleaze and glamor, its poverty and luxury. “Nobody knows Los Angeles until they’ve been entranced by it, corrupted by it, cast out from it, and returned to it on their knees begging it to save them, and Richie knew Los Angeles.”
Meanwhile, a year earlier, Jemeka, scratching out a living and paying off her late father’s debts as a stylist in a hair salon, stumbles into the world of dope-dealing and, shrewd businesswoman that she is, realizes this is her ticket out of poverty. Jemeka is very ambitious – “greedy” may be a more accurate, if less flattering, adjective.
Elliott writes compellingly about poverty and the desperation it creates, especially for characters like Richie and Jemeka, but generally in poor neighborhoods like Compton, “well-intentioned families who called Compton home got ground up in the giant machine of this nation, slipping further toward poverty and the tragic moment when pressing need overtakes good intentions.”
At first Jemeka worries about the negative impact her dealing may have on her community, but over time she rationalizes selling crack as responsible because she isn’t adulterating the drug with dangerous additives just to maximize her profits. “Looked at that way, selling crack wasn’t so bad. It could even be said she was doing something good for the community.”
On balance, Jemeka is a sympathetic character, even as her ruthlessness (which she rationalizes as pragmatism) sometimes blinds her. Richie, though, is a totally repulsive dude with a mean streak a mile wide. It’s only Mickey whom we admire. Mickey’s wife of decades, Martha, has recently died from cancer. We feel his loneliness. He’s always been a romantic. He remembers winning Martha’s love by reciting Yeats to her, the poem, “When You Are Old.”
While resolving the various plots, the novel ends somewhat ambiguously, as if the story is “to be continued.” We do learn what becomes of Jeff Strokes, but other things still seem a bit up in the air. Elliott is fully aware of this. “It’s an intentionally subversive ending,” he says, “meant to be a little irksome as I wanted to play around with the fact that most crime novels end super conveniently wrapped in a bow with all loose ends tied. The novel was my attempt at playing around with the concept of a whodunit (as a friend said, ‘it’s not a whodunit but a how- or whydunit inside a noir.’) In a way I wanted to write an anti-Nobody Move. So, yeah, just playing with expectations.”
Elliott convincingly recreates the era with reference to the current music at the end of the century. Richie is in love with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Californication” He also goes for the relative oldie, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (Blue Oyster Cult). Jemeka plays 2Pac’s music in her salon, “Only God Can Judge Me,” which is appropriate. Mickey, meanwhile, has Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever on a cassette tape. Remember cassette tapes? “I Won’t Back Down” is his anthem. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” is featured in a scene at Tower Records where Richie goes Medieval.
In any case, Porno Valley is a terrific, satisfying read. The reader’s reaction is not unlike Bethany’s when Mickey at last tells her about Jeff. “Bethany’s mouth fell open. She looked like God had descended from Heaven and urinated on her.” Philip Elliott keeps you guessing to the end!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Porno-Valley-Angel-Philip-Elliott/dp/1999086848
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.