“Wonder Valley,” the third novel from author Ivy Pochoda, begins with a classic Los Angeles tableau: a chase on the 101, complete with a police helicopter, camera-toting news crews and spectators recording the spectacle on their smartphones.
But this chase is different. For one thing, it’s not a car speeding down the freeway, it’s a young man on foot. It’s also not immediately clear who, if anyone, is in pursuit of him. And the man happens to be completely naked. The police are unable to catch him, but one observer surmises that his freedom is likely short-lived: “Because no one can vanish for good. Not in Los Angeles. Not with so many people watching.”
Things get even weirder, and much darker, from there. “Wonder Valley” follows several people on the edge, most paying in some way for poor decisions they’ve made, whose lives intersect in surprising and at times terrifying ways. It’s a dizzying, kaleidoscopic thriller that refuses to let readers look away from the dark side of Southern California.
Pochoda’s novel goes back and forth in time, alternating between 2006 and 2010, when the naked man sets out on his unusual marathon. The first character we’re introduced to is Tony, a dissatisfied attorney; he and his social-climbing wife “have a tenuous grip on the city’s glamour.” Tony is stuck in traffic on the 101 when he sees the naked man run by, and, for reasons he has trouble articulating, gets out of his car and chases after him.
Soon after, young Ren makes his appearance. He’s recently been released from juvenile detention in New York, where he was doing time for killing a man when he was 12. He’s come to Los Angeles to find his mother, Laila, who moved across the country while Ren was imprisoned. His time in custody has left him somewhat hard and somewhat shaken: “Kill someone at age twelve,” he reflects, and things “don’t really start haunting you until you understand what life is, how breakable people are.” Ren tracks down his mother on skid row, and he’s heartbroken by what she’s become.
Similarly haunted is Blake, on the run from the law with his partner in crime, Sam. After Sam breaks a bone, the pair are forced to hide out in Wonder Valley at an abandoned collection of cabins in the desert 30 miles east of Joshua Tree. It happens to be near a commune run by Patrick, a creepy hippie who lives there with his wife and twin boys. Patrick soon catches the eye of Britt, a former USC student trying to build “a new person on top of the one she’d been trying to escape.”
It’s difficult to discuss how the lives of the characters in “Wonder Valley” come together without giving away the revelations that make the novel nearly impossible to put down. That’s not to say the book is dependent on twists; while Pochoda takes her readers in unexpected directions, it’s the memorable characters and beautiful prose that make the novel so successful.
Particularly compelling is Blake, a hardened criminal who nonetheless nurses doubts about the direction his life has taken, and about his sociopathic partner, Sam. “Sam was fearless. Blake worked hard to be,” writes Pochoda. Blake, she reveals, had “been haunted by the people he and Sam had harmed — a sickening slideshow that kept him up at night and made his dreams bad when he managed to sleep.” It’s not uncommon for writers to imagine a criminal with hints of remorse, but Pochoda makes Blake a character all his own, far from perfect, but perhaps not irredeemable.
Pochoda’s portrayal of Patrick’s property, and the New Age-y “interns” who help slaughter the chickens that account for the group’s income, is also fascinating. When introduced to a Southern California quasi-commune with a charismatic leader, readers will probably flash back to Topanga Canyon in 1968. But Pochoda doesn’t go in this direction, and she even manages to mine some humor out of the group, courtesy of his teenage son, who’s skeptical of his father’s followers: “If he dragged a stick through the sand, someone asked him if he was drawing a mystical sign. If he sat on the deck after dark, an intern praised him for tapping into the lunar power source.”
Fairly or not, literary thrillers live or die by their endings, and the last pages of “Wonder Valley” are unexpected and pitch-perfect — there’s no unearned redemption, but also no needlessly dark nihilism. Pochoda has a real gift for pacing, and she’s a remarkably psychologically astute writer; it’s hard not to feel at least some kind of sympathy for all the characters, even the ones capable of monstrous acts of violence and selfishness. It’s a gorgeous portrayal of, as one character puts it, “the place to be when you don’t belong anywhere else, when you’ve done things that make the straight world an impossible place to live.”