Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Things I’d Rather Be Doing: The book is Stella’s seventh, and first set in the past. He ably recreates 1973, peppering his text with enough contemporaneous details to keep the reader in the right era, but not so many that it reads like a term paper. As I’ve often said in situations like this, I kick myself for missing out on someone like Stella for so long, but that is ameliorated by the knowledge that I have six slabs of fresh crime fiction to tackle from this master.
The Book Chase: Charlie Stella has filled Johnny Porno with a wide variety of characters. There are mob enforcers, hit men, crooked cops, good cops, vindictive ex-wives, fragile FBI men, drug addicts, police informants, wannabe porn stars (and those who live like porn stars already), good girls, con men, good guys, cute kids, loyal mothers – and Johnny Porno, a man who hates the nickname he is stuck with and just wants a little respect for his efforts to do right by his son. This is a gritty, complicated story and it is not for the faint-of-heart or the easily offended. If books were rated in the manner of Hollywood movies, Johnny Porno would have earned at least an “R” rating for itself. But if you enjoy Soprano-style fiction, you will not want to miss this one.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Johnny Porno is in many ways a master’s class on how to write a novel. As readers and writers we are told and taught that certain traits are desired above others. Show don’t tell and story through action are chief among them. A Charlie Stella novel does these things with ease and Johnny Porno is his best yet.
The dialog flows so smooth you’d swear you were over hearing someone’s conversation. He drops you in the middle and lets the reveals of the narrative come naturally through the dialog. Every conversation, every bit of dialog also reveals something about the characters, peeling back layers. The story proper is plotted with the precision of a watchmaker and as the various elements come together the reader is left with an experience that few other books offer.
The 70’s are invoked with a light but effective touch not bowing down to the research heavy sterile assault of facts that some books stoop to and instead giving you a lived in, feel the dirt and griminess that comes from experience and been there done that memory.
Bottom line is that Johnny Porno is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
An interview with Stella conducted by Keith Rawson here ...
Friday, April 30, 2010
Stark House Press has branched out from reissues to put out a brand-new book by Charlie Stella. JOHNNY PORNO is a total throwback to the crime beat of the 1970s, using the idea of the mob’s involvement with the distribution of one of the most notorious porn movies ever made: DEEP THROAT. At the time, it was the center of a major court ruling and embraced as chic by Hollywood.
Stella explains in his introduction the impetus of the novel came to him after watching the documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT, which delves into all the ins and outs of the film’s production and cultural influence. For his plot, he borrows the fact of how the mob took control of the film and its prints. The main character is John Albano, renamed by one of his contacts as Johnny Porno, since it’s his job to drive all around Long Island, picking up money and counting heads at the showings of the flick.
John knows full well this is a soul-sucking job, but he continues on, since his predecessor tried to cheat his bosses out of some money and wound up dead. John has a son he wants to see as much as possible, which is kind of hard since he owes money to his ex-wife, Nancy, and his hours are not what you would call stable.
Plenty of other characters play important roles in the various subplots. The best comparison that can be made is to the works of George V. Higgins. It helps that Stella seems to be a fan of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, since both the film and book play into part of the story. Stella not only focuses on John’s life as a pick-up man for the mob, but also a group of detectives trying to bust anyone showing DEEP THROAT, and that 1970s staple of a detective on the take. Then there are the men in Nancy’s life. Her first husband comes back with a great scheme for some easy money, while her current man seems way too good for her.
Stella has fun with DEEP THROAT throughout the book, including the idea to sell fake autographed panties or pointing out that star Linda Lovelace was not what you would call a looker. The author also has a sort of off-the-page cameo from the director of the film, and even brings up the other big porno of the time, starring that Ivory Snow girl.
I’d rather not get any further into plot specifics, but the book is so well-crafted and well-paced that it’s going to make more than a few best-of lists when the time comes. Stella never goes for the cheap outs, letting these characters develop over the course of his story. Not only is it a throwback to the 1970s generation, but one that blows away most set in the present day. —Bruce Grossman (Bookgasm)
Friday, April 16, 2010
Don’t be fooled by the title - it’s just a gangster moniker. Elmore Leonard fans are going to love Stella’s entirely original contribution to the slice-of-criminal-life genre, down-and-dirty division. After the release of Deep Throat, the low-budget porn flick starring Linda Lovelace that captured the hearts and genitals of a nation, as well as making a substantial amount of cash, the Mob suddenly realizes that the legal situation in 1973 makes “fuck movies” viable and highly marketable to the masses. It’s no longer necessary to show them in rented warehouses. So enter entertainment purveyor and bagman John Albano, soon rechristened “Johnny Porno,” and a cast of gangsters all recruiting “talent” and following the money. This is the seventh novel from Stella (Mafiya, 2008), who has made the underside of the New York underworld his home. —Elliott Swanson (Booklist)
Somebody Dies says:
John Albano is behind on his child support. To that end, he needs to make quick money, and his car-driving job isn't cutting it. Luckily, he's come into a job running bootleg copies of the newly banned porn film Deep Throat (labeled as "Peter Rabit," misspelling and all) between Brooklyn and Long Island, collecting the receipts from the head-counters at the box office (five dollars for each patron), and giving the proceeds to the mob guys who "bought" the movie (actually, forced the film's writer/director Gerard Damiano out of their partnership).
For this, he is paid fifty dollars a day — and these are 1973 dollars. The guy who did it before him got the nickname Tommy Porno, but he was caught stealing and turned up dead with his hands cut off. So now they call Albano Johnny Porno, and he doesn't like it.
Meanwhile, John's ex-wife Nancy's first ex-husband Louis — whom she cheated on John with, and is cheating on her third husband with, too (are you keeping up?) — has hatched a plan to rob John of the mob's money when John comes to make his weekly child support payment to Nancy, with her help.
Louis owes four thousand dollars to his shylock and his bookie. He keeps looking for his next score but can't cut his nickel bags any more than he already does, or they'll start smelling like an Italian dinner. But Louis is a full-time con artist and philanderer loaded with ideas for whatever can make him an easy buck.
At the same time, Albano is also being pursued by police. Captain Billy Hastings, forced to retire when he took a swing at Albano and got knocked out for his trouble, is bent on revenge. And a duo is trying to clean the porn off the streets by investigating John's boss, Eddie Vento. Author Charlie Stella keeps all these subplots up in the air simultaneously without ever dropping a single ball.
Stella was raised in Brooklyn and spent 18 years making money wherever he could (legally or otherwise, much like his protagonist), so he knows the crowd he writes about. He wrote his first novel, Eddie's World, to impress his current wife, and he has steadily grown a following for his intelligent and astute books about criminals, receiving starred reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
Inspired by a viewing of the documentary Inside Deep Throat — Stella and his wife looked at each other and said "Next book" — Johnny Porno, Stella's seventh novel, is a terrific crime epic from this woefully underknown author. It is loaded with a cast of quirky losers, layabouts, and louts, with the one shining star being John himself. It's the got the kind and number of characters that director Robert Altman liked to juggle, and I like to think it could have been his 1973 crime film if he hadn't decided to reimagine Philip Marlowe with The Long Goodbye.
Based on my experience with Johnny Porno — I haven't read his other books but plan to remedy that soon (Charlie Opera is $2.00 on Smashwords) — I must say that Charlie Stella is one of the best writers the crime genre currently has to offer. He's a natural wordsmith, putting down the way people really talk in a way that still reads smoothly — not an easy task. The fact that Stark House Press, who previously focused on reprinting "lost" pulp novels, chose Stella as their first original author — after author Ed Gorman recommended him upon reading the manuscript — says a lot about his peers' respect for him. —Craig Clarke (Somebody Dies)
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
By Charlie Stella
Plot Summary: John Albano is feeling the heat from all sides during the summer of 1973 in New York City. Cut from his Union job for a scuffle with the foreman, John is now scrambling to pay rent, bills, and child support to his poison pill of an ex-wife. In a desperate move, he takes on a job shuttling film cans and moneybags for the local mafia boss. The ‘good guys’ are making a killing screening the illegal porno flick, Deep Throat, and John’s just trying to make a few bucks, but working for the mafia lands him in trouble up to his neck.
Charlie Stella has a gift for nailing the colorful characters in this seedy little corner of New York. The dialog couldn’t be more authentic, and from page one I was transported to a hot, gritty landscape full of guys who say ‘yous’ and women who are used to being used. I got the feeling that Mr. Stella really knows these people intimately, but part of me sincerely hopes that characters like Nancy, the ex-wife, are figments of his imagination. As much as I liked John, I absolutely hated her, and the depth of my emotion shows just how convincing the characterizations were.
I could easily see Johnny Porno being made into a film, and my husband would see it in a heartbeat. For myself, I prefer to consume crime stories in print, and this one turned into quite a page-turner at the end. Mr. Stella does not romanticize street life in any way, shape, or form, and I truly had no idea how he would end it. That makes for an exciting read, but it’s also unsettling, like riding on a rollercoaster at the crest and having no idea where it’ll hit bottom. I’m accustomed to hanging out with the romantics, not the realists, and while Mr. Stella doesn’t tie things up neat and pretty with a bow, the conclusion rang true and it satisfied me.
The story revolves around a wide cast of characters, and the only time I stumbled a bit was when it shifted over to the cops and feds trailing the mafia. Some of the police procedural had me scratching my head, but it didn’t matter because everything was crystal clear when the action snapped back to the criminal element. I relished how the focus was on the guys at the bottom of the totem pole, and I got to see what happens to the drivers, runners, and climbers who associate with organized crime. It ain’t pretty.
Rebecca Baumann (Dirty Sexy Books)
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Publisher: Stark House Press ISBN-10: 193358629X
Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader
Late summer of 1973 in New York. Watergate is attracting daily headlines and Vice President Spiro Agnew is near to resigning over corruption charges. The economy is in the dumper and the American League has adopted the Designated Hitter rule. In short, times stink. The movie Deep Throat has made Linda Lovelace a household name; when a New York judge rules the film to be obscene and bans it from theaters, the nation and media have something to discuss over dinner and bars, since nothing else important is going on.
This is the setting for Charlie Stella’s new novel, Johnny Porno. John Albano has lost his union carpenter’s card after an altercation at work, and is reduced to humping bootleg copies of Deep Throat around Brooklyn and Long Island for made man Eddie Vento. Albano has no long-term mob desires; he’s only trying to catch up on his child support, maybe take his kid to a Yankees game. Nothing too complicated there, right?
Enter John’s ex-wife, Nancy. She’s remarried to a member of the New York Philharmonic, but has never stopped sleeping with her pre-Albano husband, Louis Kirsk. Louis is a degenerate gambler who sleeps with anyone carrying complementary plumbing and will turn a nickel any way he can to stay one step ahead of the loan sharks and bookies. When Nancy tells him what John is doing for money, Louis develops a plan to rob him when he’s carrying the receipts of the underground showings back to Vento. Who better to rob than someone carrying illicit money? What Vento will do to John doesn’t enter into the equation.
That’s a movie’s worth of story already; Stella is still warming up. Nick Santorra is Vento’s driver, with an attitude about moving up and an abiding dislike of John. Bridget Malone is Vento’s mistress, and may have an arrangement with the FBI. Law enforcement is represented by NYPD Detectives Kaprowski, Levin, Brice, and Kelly, one of whom is in Vento’s pocket while the others try to bring him down.
Each of the stories is enough to carry a book of its own. Stella’s gift as a storyteller is to give thorough renderings of each without slighting any, and not making the book seem long. He build the stories independently, then pulls them together in increments so deftly the relationships may not dawn on the reader until sometime after they’ve become interdependent.
Stella is of the George V. Higgins school and tells the story through compelling dialogue; Tony Soprano may speak like a gangster, but Stella’s hoods speak as gangsters. Like Higgins, Stella isn’t afraid to let action occur offstage, to be described by the principals after the fact. In Stella’s hands, this adds to the suspense, as he understands every overt climax lessens tension at its conclusion, while covert climaxes continue to ratchet it up. No character is ever aware of as much as the reader, so actions that make perfect sense to them immediately set off alarms as the potential consequences become evident. Stella never succumbs to the temptation to have someone do anything out-of-character stupid for the sake of raising the stakes; his creations are more than capable of making logical decisions guaranteed to make things worse, and believably so.
It is Charlie Stella’s misfortune that gangster stories are popular for their romanticized portrayals. There’s nothing romantic or dashing in his world. Hoods are venal and petty, violent not solely as a business technique, but for convenience sake. The public would be better served if Stella’s depiction of organized crime was more generally accepted, as there would be no question of how vigorously to prosecute them. That’s not the world we live in, so take some solace in the entertainment provided by Stella’s non-fragrant universe, where the peripheral players most books and movies use as pawns have their own stories told without sentiment or window dressing. You’ll lose yourself in it, and remain grateful you only came for a visit.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
A likeable protagonist in John Albano whose decency is only matched by the number of personal problems nipping at his heels and an unfortunate nickname which doubles as the novel’s title.
Some time-traveling to 1973 (and a scary sense of deju vu that despite whatever technological and social advancements the years have brought, not that much finally has changed in America).
A plot whose pacing is as fast as a pack of greyhounds and at the same time, miraculously, as crazily and craftily constructed as a Marx Brothers movie or a Rube Goldberg machine.
A hungry menagerie of good guys and bad guys at feeding time.
A writing style that’s top-shelf.
Some side-orders of Suspense. Romance. Black Humor. All seasoned liberally with Sex, Violence, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.
What else will readers find in JOHNNY PORNO?
A novel that shouldn’t be this much fun or pleasurable.
That’s Charlie Stella’s real crime.
Author of LATE RAIN (Tyrus Books 2010)
A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES (New Pulp Press 2010)
THE LONG FALL (Carroll and Graf 2003)
Gangster wannabe #1, Jimmy Bench Press, gets hooked up with Gangster wanna be #2, Larry Berra, who needs help in collecting for an ill-advised loan to a old Cuban barber. Our barber had a thing going with a young bar owner half his age and took the loan out to help her out, but she just takes the cash and pushes poor Vittorio out and left to Jimmy BP's not-so-good nature.
But Jimmy is not working in a vacuum. Two decent cops, Pavlik and DeNafria, on the Organized Crime task force are working hard to get all the details needed to put him away even while each are dealing with their own demons of marital separation and a violent history.
Jimmy BP keeps sticking his fingers where they probably don't belong, giving our 2 good cops more than enough to keep track of to get him put back in prison. With the help of some dogged police work and the help of a jilted girlfriend, Pavlik and DeNafria follow Jimmy BP to a luxury yacht where he is set to become a made man.
This is the 2002 followup to very entertaining Eddie's World, but this one takes a bit of a different turn. In a number of Stella's books we find some decent guy caught on the edge of the mob. In Jimmy BP, the decent guys are the cops and the guy on the mob's list of up and comers, Jimmy, is a violent sociopath. Down in the gutter realism (or at least as much as a guy like me can envision such realism having never experienced it) carries the soul of this story. Some later efforts by Stella have a bit of a snarky grin, but this one spits in your eye, clutches your throat forcing you to struggle against the obsession of a man with but one goal, becoming a made man. Stella paints a very bad guy in such a light that the reader patiently waits for Jimmy BP to get what's coming to him, and when he does, while it's not quite what Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci in Goodfellas) gets, I found it to be every bit as satisfying.
I've got two more Stella titles to go and I'll be up to date on his catalogue of novels (Mafiya, reviewed by West Coast Don, and Shakedown). Each one I've read so far has some seriously tough dialogue and characters that are interesting and both sympathetic and unsympathetic at the same time. If you can find it, be prepared for a few lost hours at the doorway to the alter according to Stella. And there are far worse places to wait for Tommy Burns.
East Coast Don
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Johnny Porno is exactly that – a hard man chasing the tail that won’t pay for the tears. Leaving the question of morality to a later point, as readers will wherever such titular style commands their more immediate attention, might just be the author’s first stroke of genius. How better to signal the novel’s urgency and its heroes’ pragmatism than with this street name? If it is read in the associative memory of its folklore context – ‘Johnny Porno’ cast as the love child of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ – the idea of a nation’s nurseryman spreading his seed is implanted in the reader’s fertile mind. If’Johnny’ is not just a name but a colloquialism for ‘condom’ then the title alone tells two stories: the classic tragedy of love that is condemned to be consummated without anything coming of it; or the cautionary tale of intercourse that is so estranged from romance it is practised by strangers with a contraceptive to make sure nothing comes of it.
The title, like the story, tells of how sex is abstracted to an aesthetic. It lets us feel the excitement and the jaundice of hedonism as a life choice; it even gives a sense of the fatigue of fucking for a living rather than a life. Its ring of the instant classic gives an inkling of a new age, primitive and post-romantic. Its crassness offers as an explanation our casual prenatal care; and its anonymity is the author’s second stroke of genius. While it portends to be just another guy’s biography of macho glamour and glandular musings, our recognition of the archetypal man is chased by the less comfortable notion that such stereotype is a label broad enough to encompass a generation of adolescence, even an entire gender. Before our heartbeat has reached its climax, before page 1 through 340 need bother with foreplay or a moral strategy, Johnny Porno engenders exactly that – we have always wondered about two things, what a protagonist manages to do for a living and how he arranges his sex life. Finally the two are one. In short, this story is about our lives and how these two activities account for their ‘best’ part. What this instils is a rare modesty, an understanding not to blame the century for our delusions, especially not some ordinary ‘Johnny Porno.’
So much for the title. To say the story is best read in the tradition of a George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard may seem like high praise, but Charlie Stella belongs among these distinguished laureates for more reasons than his readers will find listed here or anywhere outside of his work. After six contemporary novels one reads Johnny Porno as one stumbles on a pre-established harmony. The novel as a genre has been investigative from its early beginnings in the picaresque adventure, and it is in this ancient tradition that Stella’s novels of crime are dedicated to subversion. So much is clear without a retelling of literary history. What is of greater interest is that lesser writers have and will always curry favour with their readers by granting them the comforts of illusion. They show man’s death by betrayal not as a reflection of human nature but to create and then calm their readers’ fears when danger yields to expertise. It is Stella’s third stroke of genius that we see high life from street level, which he does not show as the received platitudes of their ‘competent man,’ but from the perspective of ‘Johnny Porno’ the modern day ‘Picaro,’ who doesn’t just show – he shows up.
Stella has here written the Nixon era’s notorious ‘Deep Throat’ politics into the life stories of those unfortunate enough to get involved in the Mafia controlled New York of 1973. Enter John Albano, the involuntary beneficiary of the street name ‘Johnny Porno.’ After losing his regular job along with his union card, Albano is overdue on his child support and accepts weekend work for the mob as a money collector at illegal screenings of an X-rated porn movie. Central to the novel as well as its historical context, the picture becomes the book’s Leitmotiv. Involving Albano in the practical conflicts of a second prohibition, Stella showcases the corruption common to politicians of the White House and those of darker backrooms where a living and a killing is made as they “replace the abortion the war’s been and what the Watergate thing is becoming with something supposed to protect our morality. Deep Throat it is.” Representing the irony that has defined the failure of the government’s moral health campaign, the novel’s protagonists and plotlines are so well connected one follows them in the deepening understanding that such unconstitutional autocracy can only ever result in a scandal as thematically relevant and psychologically true as the incident Stella remembers in his foreword. The FBI informant on whose testimony Nixon’s presidency ended in that ‘Watergate thing,’ happened to be a namesake of the infamous porno. In Stella’s hands, ‘Deep Throat’ is more than a framework of social history, though. The double entendre becomes a harbinger to every reader untroubled by the lessons of anachronistic history and gangster familiarity; this story is told from an even deeper throat.
When Stella borrows he does not borrow whole systems, as when he speaks of the power that knowledge and corruption command. His dramatisation of crime and consequences never descends to pedestrian lecturing, but rather controls a narrative of numerous individual subplots by alternating pace and suspense with passages of quiet introspection. Anything but ready-mades, his characters constitute a broad section of 70s Western society impressive in plausibility in speech, exactness in psychological method, and honesty in the face of temptation. Stella makes a welcome difference between death and fatality, between the fear it inspires in the innocent as opposed to the professional oversight it becomes to the ‘less innocent’ who are not simply deemed guilty by generic design; both implicate us in their conflicts with our conscience. When Stella’s police detectives, perverse academics, tradesmen, ex-wives, girlfriends, wiseguys and kingpins chase back and forth over crime scenes and tourist spots, they are never derivative types but individuals with unusual back stories, creative spontaneity, even a charming sense of humour or comic lack thereof; which is to say they are dramatically and charismatically alive. What this means for the story is that, far from eliminating the clear-cut one-liners we have come to expect from crime writing, its verisimilitude allows them to be felt rather than feel forced. “The beast at the top is forever hungry, my friend.”
In his engaging way of addressing the reader, Stella confirms his maturity of pragmatism and takes a stand in opposition to the generic fallacy which looks only at infallible generalities. Stella knows that those deserving of the accolade ‘wise guy’ won’t attenuate life’s radical pluralism by telling it as a game of Byronic heroes beating the odds with predictable strategies. That “might impress the ones keeping score, but it never fools the players.” A very different literary heritage gives the novel its thematic catalogue, for Charlie Stella’s ‘Albano’ follows in the footsteps of such anti-heroes as Jaroslav Hašek’s ‘Švejk’ and Italo Svevo’s ‘Zeno.’ These are not your average victims of brooding melancholy and poetic injustice, nor are they dark outcasts, but men who live among men where they have learnt that the people we owe own our freedom. Yet rather than estranging his reader with such analytical discourse, Stella evokes true emotions in harness with true ideas starting with the choice of his epigraph. The anonymous evidence of a Shakespearean source is from Juliet’s monologue in despair of love lost at the cost of Romeo’s name, without which he would “retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title.” Today such attitudes might invite the assumption that love is always listless, that friends and foes are all the same frauds, and that necessity excuses all manner of infidelity in an age that attaches a morbid meaning to the survival of the richest. Yet Stella silences Juliet before her lyrical lament can explain her rhetorical complaint, “what’s in a name?”
We are then to find our own answers in the character of John Albano. While the admirer from afar might favour the heroism of classic tragedy, Stella owes it to his finer sense of greatness that his protagonist is the kind we first come to know well before he is well known. His is the timeless, the mysterious sort of great man; the only sort that history ever provides. Stella’s refusal to rewrite the classic is notice served that a new school of old school crime writing is coming to life. Albano’s refusal to believe that organised crime betokens worldly wisdom reveals a principle of romance from which he draws this new way of apprehending life. “The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth,” but while Chandler’s definition made his “man of honour ... the best man in his world,” Stella asks us to respect human virtues. Albano reconciles the erratic force of emotion, which is also the cause of the world’s false standards, with his self-seeking honesty, which allows him to understand and forgive the calculating selfishness of the disabused. If we respond with scepticism to both impulses it is because we have almost lost his erotic drive. Yet by first reminding us of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and then translating its rhetorical question into the vernacular of our romantically challenged times, Stella’s way with words does the near impossible; it finds a way from pornography to romance in the paradox of power and impotence peculiar to all of us: “Fuck’s in a name?”