Earl Dean, the Cyclone vacuum cleaner salesman ("It's not the suction, ma'am; airflow's the thing"), has a problem.
Rattling into the South California night in his aging Falcon, Earl has found himself in the living room of a dilapidated tract house, where, instead of demonstrating his vacuum cleaner, he stares at a "body, naked and white, stretched out upon a bed of ice in a large red freezer with the word Coca-Cola, and beneath that, the phrase 'Things go better with Coke,' in white script across the side." Things go downhill from there.
Seems that Earl has happened on the house of a high school friend, Dan Brown, a deranged and violent biker whose brother Buddy now resides in the Coke freezer. Dan has enlisted Earl to sing an elegy over Buddy's grave, whether Earl likes it or not. Along the way, Earl discovers the secret of Buddy's killer.
Thus begins Kem Nunn's third novel, Pomona Queen, an account of a hellish night of knife fights, bar brawls, cars (thefts, chases, crashes), and encounters with the local constabulary, spiteful relatives, and a malicious speed metal band, Pomona Queen. And sunrise brings little relief.
Interwoven with this tale are two others: the story of Earl's grandfather, William Tacompsy McCauly, and his mysterious death in Chinatown; and Earl's own lost love, Rayann Kellington, a doomed Sixties child whose wayward path leads finally to insanity and death. As Earl deals with Dan Brown, he tries to sort out what has happened to his native state of California.
For Earl Dean "was not, in his heart, a vacuum-cleaner salesman. In that black land he fancied himself a pilgrim, a seeker after hidden paths, a student of the theology of hope."
Pomona Queen is at once a comic picaresque and an elegy, a remembrance of lost time set seen from the vantage point of a declining culture, one populated by bikers, rednecks, vacuum cleaner salesmen, all the detritus of a Southern California given over to the greed of real estate developers.
"Within forty years of his [grandfather's] death it was gone, defoliated, smogged, ransacked. There were iron bars on the windows of the Cinderella tract. It was breathtaking really. It was the story of the state, possibly the story of man."
Earl's grandfather's legacy was a single acre of land, the remainder of an orange grove that shipped under the label Pomona Queen, a grove destroyed by blight. The grove and its virus serve as metaphors for California itself, and its lost promise.
"The virus, like one more exotic dance, was first noticed in Argentina, later in Brazil, where it was given the name Tristeza, a Portuguese word meaning sadness or melancholy. In California they called it the Quick Decline."
Pomona Queen's point of view is decidedly romantic, a longing for a time of California dreamers, adventurers and hucksters before they fell prey to corporate exploitation. Simultaneously the novel is an expression of hope, that the disease rotting the West Coast will pass, and will be followed by a renewal that will wash the land clean.
But despite these weighty reflections, Pomona Queen remains a darkly comic fiction from the other coast, whose vision may have something to offer to our own greed-ravaged state.