THE BOOK NOOK: What happens in the desert stays in the desert

“Wonder Valley” by Ivy Pochoda (Ecco, 324 pages, $26.99)

A few years ago the novelist Ivy Pochoda published a fascinating mystery called “Visitation Street.” Pochoda is a Brooklyn native and that story was set in New York City. I had been watching out for her next book and wondering if it could possibly live up to the promise shown in her previous work.

Pochoda recently published “Wonder Valley.” It is set in Los Angeles and the nearby Mojave Desert. My advance copy had a blurb from Edan Lepucki. She wrote that it presents “a vision of Southern California that is both panoramic and intimate.”

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On my finished copy, one thing had been changed; Lepucki’s blurb had migrated to the back cover and been replaced by one from Michael Connelly. He wrote that “Wonder Valley” is “destined to become a classic L.A. novel.” After reading it I think he could be right.

The story begins with a prologue and what seems like a classic Los Angeles street scene. It is seven o’clock in the morning and there is already a massive traffic jam on the freeway. Agitated drivers are suffering this familiar indignity when they notice something that distracts them from their commuter agony — a young man sprinting down the highway, threading his way effortlessly past the stalled vehicles.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound very interesting? Well, the Adonis-like runner is naked. The L.A. media is aware of the situation, a helicopter from a TV station is swooping down low to get footage. The young man passes a businessman named Tony who is in his SUV waiting for traffic to move.

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The story gets pleasantly strange. Tony missed his morning run that day — when he spots the runner he impulsively decides to get out and chase him, abandoning his SUV. Eventually Tony loses sight of his quarry. The police have been following both runners — they finally catch up with Tony and arrest him.

Pochoda tells the story from the viewpoint of Tony and several other participants in this bizarrely imagined tale. The initial scene on the freeway takes place in 2010. Then we flash back to 2006 and the viewpoint of a woman named Britt, who is desperately trying to hide.

She ends up stumbling into a cult-like commune out in the desert.

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There is a charismatic guru who claims to be a healer living there with his family and a small group of young devotees.

Meanwhile a couple of criminals named Blake and Sam are hiking into the desert. They act like brothers. Sam is huge and very scary. We experience Blake’s vantage point as he tags along and tries to keep Sam from engaging in any further mayhem.

Then there’s Ren, a young man who has come to California looking for his mother. He eventually locates her living among the homeless masses on Skid Row. Ren has recently been released from a juvenile detention facility. He was sent there because he killed somebody.

Pochoda weaves a wicked web of intrigue as she eventually connects all these random people; Tony, Britt, Blake, Ren, and the naked runner in a story that becomes strangely redemptive.

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