Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Author Lynn Kostoff on Johnny Porno ...

What will readers find when they open JOHNNY PORNO?

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.

--Lynn Kostoff
Author of LATE RAIN (Tyrus Books 2010)
A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES (New Pulp Press 2010)
THE LONG FALL (Carroll and Graf 2003)

Men Reading Books on Jimmy Bench-Press

Jimmy Mangino is just out from his second stint in prison and figures he is due to move up the crime ladder and become a made man in the Vignieris family. Jimmy isn't just muscle for some bottom feeder loan sharks, he is all muscle with a rep for having bench pressed over 400 lbs, a handy ability for someone whose life is tied up in intimidation and violence. You don't want him for a friend or an enemy.

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

The Latest on Johnny Porno ...

Reviewed by Len Wanner on 17/03/2010. Len Wanner. Len Wanner was educated at University College Dublin (BA&MA) and the University of Edinburgh where he is working on his Ph.D.

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?”

Pre-order Johnny Porno here.