“Ways to make a fast buck”: Lynn Kostoff’s Late Rain and Charlie Stella’s Johnny Porno
Kate Horsley & Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
Although they have never met, Charlie Stella and Lyn Kostoff have a long-standing admiration for one another’s work. In their July 2010 interview for Crimeculture, it’s clear that this mutual respect is in part founded on the ability of each writer to go beyond the constraints of genre. One of the greatest pleasures of Johnny Porno, Kostoff says, is the way Stella plays genres off against one another, combining “social realism, comedy, police procedural, romance, and crime novel”; and Stella rightly says of Kostoff’s fiction, “You’re more than a genre writer; your prose is as literary as any I’ve ever read.”
Published in 2010, Stella’s Johnny Porno and Kostoff’s Late Rain both make hugely effective and inventive use of the genre to explore dark, corrupt versions of the American success story. Kostoff’s novel is centred on a struggle to control the empire of a soft drink mogul, Stella’s on the extraordinary financial success of a porn film. The settings are widely separated: Late Rain takes place in an imaginary 21st-century beach resort on the way to becoming a boom town in South Carolina, whereas Stella reaches back to New York in the summer of 1973 – to Nixon-era politics, the banning of Deep Throat and the mob at the peak of its power. But in spite of manifold differences between the two novels, there are some strong similarities in theme. What Kostoff calls Stella’s “hungry menagerie of good guys and bad guys at feeding time” are, like his own femme fatale in Late Rain, the epitome of “American individualism taken to its farthest extremes” (Crimeculture interview).
Late Rain is the third of Lynn Kostoff’s novels (The Long Fall was published in 2003, A Choice of Nightmares in 2010). It is beautifully constructed and is also, in the best sense, a character-driven novel. As we gradually come to understand its tightly woven plot, we gain increasing insight into its remarkable cast of subtly observed characters. Their ill-fated collisions with one another are marked by humour, pathos and a darkly noir sense of the unbridgeable gaps between desire and harsh reality.
Towards the end of the novel, when its events are sensationalized by the popular press, it has become “an updated Greek tragedy…a rich and powerful patriarch over a troubled family;…the beautiful and scheming woman with the dark past…” But nothing is that simple, and one of Kostoff’s real strengths as a writer is to allow all of his main characters to emerge as complex and sympathetic.
The only orgasm the femme fatale doesn’t have to fake comes when she indulges in her fantasy about her husband’s rich uncle lying underground, “six feet and forever”. But however avaricious and predatory Corinne Tedros is, we see so much of the novel through her eyes that we come uncomfortably close to sharing her wish to have this human impediment removed. We see into the reasons for her iron determination. Having spent “her whole life practicing how to empty herself” of her true identity, Corinne has suppressed so much that she can’t connect with any inner sense of herself or her actions. As Kostoff says in his interview with Charlie Stella, “In the end, her hunger is raised to the level of the metaphysical. It’s all she knows and is.”
From the detective to the hired killer, all of Kostoff’s characters are compelled and defined by their hungers and tormented by what they lack. The detective, Ben Decovic, hungers for understanding: “Despite his wife’s death and all the dead-end circumstances surrounding it, Ben still wanted to believe in motive.” He suffers from a persistent desire to find reasonable explanations underlying “the improbable tangle of coincidences that daily life served up all too often to mock our hunger for order.”
Unsatisfied longings are most touchingly captured in the portrayal of the witness to the murder, Jack Carson, a man descending into Alzheimers, experiencing in the most poignant way “the gap between what you felt and the words you used to try and build sentences that fit what you were feeling.” On the other end of the moral spectrum, the autistic murderer is equally unable to express himself. In both cases, what’s evident is the importance of language: Jack’s death is imaged as “all the words he’d ever known and used, all of them leaving and taking the world and him with them…”
The world itself undermines meaning by its instability. Adjoining neighbourhoods appear to have emerged from incongruously different artistic visions: “He drove past blocks of homes maintained in a time-warp Norman Rockwell respectability, bordered by others sliding toward a low-rent destiny straight out of Erskine Caldwell.” The housing mirrors the uncertainty of the human lives – insecure, struggling, not one thing or another. Kostoff’s setting has a disturbingly half-created quality suggestive of transience, sham, glitter and dissolution: “Magnolia Beach was like something half-birthed,” a place “simultaneously disappearing and emerging”. It’s the way Kostoff captures the precariousness of existence that makesHard Rain such a subtle and affecting novel.
Three or four decades earlier, insecure, precarious lives are also at the heart of Charlie Stella’s Johnny Porno, set in New York’s seedy underside, as the mob takes charge of distributing the now-legendary Linda Lovelace porno movie Deep Throat. Stella’s novel creates a carefully researched version of New York in August 1973 that comes off the page with enormous vitality. He worried that his searches through New York Post and Daily News articles would end up reading “like a journal summary”, but in the event this “motherload” of information is transformed into a vivid, immediate narrative of the pornographic witch hunt that took place under “the big political shadow” of Watergate” (Crimeculture interview).
Like Stella’s other novels – Eddie’s World, Jimmy Bench-Press, Charlie Opera, Cheapskates, Shakedown, Mafiya – Johnny Porno is skillfully paced and tightly plotted. The scenes are taut and the dialogue is simultaneously realistic and laugh-out-loud funny. Stella is a master of using conversations between characters to give you an immediate sense of their relationships and who they are. His writing is both shrewd and heartfelt.
The first scene between John Albano and George Berg mixes ‘Goodfellas’ style wisecracks with acute observation:
‘I got nothing to do with this crap outside of hauling it back and forth weekends,’ John said. ‘I never even seen the damn movie.’
‘You like magic acts you should,’ Berg said. ‘See it, I mean. The star, Linda Lovelace, she has some humble tits and all, a crooked tooth of two, but she can swallow a telephone pole. It’s something every man should get to see before he dies, know what he’s missed.’
Stella deftly intertwines the tribulations of the main characters with his dynamic Nixon era backdrop. The novel’s title comes from the nickname of the main character, John Albano, an ill-starred mob runner who earns the moniker ‘Johnny Porno’ from his job of driving round Long Island, collecting money at Deep Throat screenings. His concerns about the work he does are outweighed by his fears of getting whacked if he quits. On top of this nightmare, there’s Johnny’s ex-wife Nancy and her tangled love life, detectives investigating Johnny’s boss Eddie Vento and trying to shut down screenings of Deep Throat, and a corrupt cop on the take.
The film’s sudden notoriety is “a major score for the mob”. Because it has been banned by the politicians, “Guys are making a fortune”: “’Just like Prohibition,’ Levin said. ‘Mob’s best friends, politicians.’” The intertwining of politics, crime and economic opportunism is implicit throughout, and the ironies are never lost on us. The launching of a moral crusade by the White House to distract the country from war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal has resulted in unprecedented public interest in “a campy, cheaply made porno” and, what’s more, has given a very welcome boost to organized crime, providing mobsters “with a new way to make a fast buck”. Like Kostoff’s Late Rain, Johnny Porno is a brilliantly plotted, beautifully written demonstration of how the crime novel can function to expose the avarice and the lies of a corrupt society.
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Horsley and Lee Horsley