Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella (Stark House, 2010)

It’s 1973 and John Albano is barely scraping by driving for a local car service having lost his union-card construction job after an altercation with the foreman. Albano has a good heart, but has a habit of getting into trouble with his fists. A run in with a corrupt police officer leads to an offer of work from the mob - shuttling porn films to underground cinemas and collecting the takings. It’s less than ideal, but he has an ex-wife and kid to support and he needs the money. His new side-job, however, has placed him in the crosshairs of a converging set of forces: anti-corruption cops seeking to purge their own, the FBI seeking to take down the mob, his ex-wife and her other ex-husband who’d like to get their hands on a weekend of takings, the deranged cop ousted from the force due to the earlier run-in, and a low level mobster feeling threatened by the new guy. Every which way he turns trouble lurks.

Johnny Porno is an ambitious novel, telling a quite complex story from the multiple perspectives of a fairly large cast. That it hangs together without becoming incoherent or the reader getting lost is testament to Stella’s skill as a writer. And whilst relatively slow at the start, as various characters and subplots are set in place, the story gently and insistently tugs the reader along. By the end, it is cantering having turned into a real page-turner. Interestingly, nearly every single scene could be published as a standalone piece of flash fiction. Whilst the plotting is very good, creating a believable story and recreating the sense of place and social relations of 1973 New York, where the novel excels is with respect to characterization and the various social interactions. All of Stella’s characters are fully realised with clearly defined personalities, traits, and motivations. Few are pleasant company, but all are vividly portrayed with a fine eye for social realism. How they interact is very well done, especially the dialogue which is excellent: reading the conversations feels as if you’re eavesdropping. There are a number of references to George V Higgins in the book and Stella is a worthy successor. In short, Johnny Porno was an engrossing read.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - First, your blog looks great! I really like the look quite a lot. Also, thanks for the terrific review. This one sounds like a very absorbing read, and it's good to hear the characters are done well. Too often they aren't when there's a larger cast.