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Ponicsan’s 'Eternal Sojourners' a satire on Sonoma life

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THE TRUTH ABOUT...ETERNAL SOJOURNERS

‘Eternal Sojourners’ was released in 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing (Simon & Schuster). It’s available in hardcover at Readers Books and as an e-book.

Another book by Ponicsan, his first non-fiction, will be released on April 1. “I Feel Bad About My D#@k” is inspired by Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My N*#k.” says the author, as a series of brief humorous essays about being Darryl, being a man, and growing older. He admits to being colorblind and finding a “murse” – a male purse – an extremely useful accessory, among other topics. It will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio.

When an angel – nude, wingéd, cafe-au-lait in color – is shot by police in the quiet town of Maragate, she falls dead at the feet of a newcomer, D.K. Keeskeméti, uttering her last words, “Hope is alive.”

So begins Darryl Ponicsán’s new novel, “Eternal Sojourners,” clearly a thematic departure from his previous book, “Last Flag Flying,” which was a return to the characters of “The Last Detail” 40 years later.

But while Ponicsán was working on that book – which became a film starring Bryan Cranston in the old Jack Nicholson role – he had simultaneously undertaken a revolt against the prevalence of leaf blowers among landscapers in Sonoma, where he was living at the time, in 2013.

“Last Flag Flying” was the ninth book Ponicsán had written, along with four mysteries under the pen name Anne Argula. “It’s the kind of work that requires concentration, which was hard to come by in pre-ban Sonoma,” the author told the Index-Tribune in a recent correspondence.

A former Navy sailor, teacher and social worker, Ponicsán has lived in a variety of places, including a stint in Southern California and several years in the Seattle area. He and his second wife, Cecilia, bought a house in Sonoma in 1999, and though they now live part of the year in Palm Springs, “Eternal Soujourners” shows as much as anything how inspirational Ponicsán finds Sonoma, for better and for worse.

“An impetus for the book was my sincere confusion over how a destination town with so much going for it could subject its residents to obvious health risks and maddening noise,” he said.

As he told the city council in numerous appearances in 2013, he found the noise of leaf blowers disruptive to his work, and supporters of the machinery “mean-spirited.”

“I have spent hundreds of hours researching and thinking about gas powered leaf blowers and during some of that time imagined that they must be an invention of the devil.”

Then he mused, “Hmmm. Might be a book in that.”

Ponicsán’s crusade took place just two years after the city council had limited the noise of leaf blowers in 2011, and reduced their hours of residential operation. But Ponicsan and others argued that other communities such as Carmel had banned leaf blowers altogether years earlier without adverse effects on landscaping businesses. He eventually circulated a petition that gained 300 signatures to pressure the city council to take up the issue again, and continued making regular appearances at council meetings to protest the noise.

Early in October of 2013, the city council approved 3-2 an ordinance to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, the loudest offenders. But two weeks later, one councilmember – then-Mayor Ken Brown – changed his vote when it came up for adoption, scuttling the ban and causing a whirlwind of controversy.

Ponicsán seemed to throw in the towel after that reversal, but he’s not one to forgive and forget. The protagonist of “Eternal Sojourners” is likewise a writer, and the more he becomes accustomed to his new home town – a small out-of-the-way place called Maragate – the more he becomes bothered by the incessant tornado of its leaf blowers, and the army of landscapers who wield them.

Several passages in the book are descriptive screeds against blowers – and one of them was posted by “Darryl P.” on the Sonoma Nextdoor website on Nov. 12, 2019, the date that “Eternal Sojourners” was published:

THE TRUTH ABOUT...ETERNAL SOJOURNERS

‘Eternal Sojourners’ was released in 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing (Simon & Schuster). It’s available in hardcover at Readers Books and as an e-book.

Another book by Ponicsan, his first non-fiction, will be released on April 1. “I Feel Bad About My D#@k” is inspired by Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My N*#k.” says the author, as a series of brief humorous essays about being Darryl, being a man, and growing older. He admits to being colorblind and finding a “murse” – a male purse – an extremely useful accessory, among other topics. It will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio.

“Men with hurricanes in their backpacks attacked a dozen fallen leaves on a lawn not much bigger than a hotel room, sending them 20 feet into the air toward the street or into the neighbor’s yard. Turning back, they would invariably find a leaf or two had landed back on the lawn, and they would renew their attack on a single leaf, with a force nearing 300 mph of generated wind. Satisfied that no leaf remained, the men would blast away at anemic bushes, killing the odd bee and butterfly but clearing out any hidden leaves, which only put more of them back on the lawn….”

After Brown switched his vote, Cecilia Ponicsán penned a letter to the Index-Tribune excoriating the mayor, and predicted a 2014 passage of a leaf blower ban. She was too optimistic: it wasn’t until 2016 that the issue came before the council again, and in November of that year Measure V to restrict leaf-blower use, passed by a narrow 19 votes in the general election.

Meanwhile Ponicsán was withdrawing from Sonoma civic life, and now spends much of the year in Palm Springs, returning to Sonoma for summers (when it’s too hot in the desert). It’s a move he prefigured with a passage in another new book he released recently, “I Feel Bad About…,” a series of self-obsessed vignettes in the style of Norah Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My Neck.”

“If I moved to a warm climate I could wear a nice straw hat, something with a wide brim and a hatband of hibiscus flowers. The cigar would be fine, then I could add rum and get away with it… And that is how I came to move to the desert.”

But the protagonist and the writer are not the same person, as novelists invariably stress. “I understand how the average reader will assume every novel is autobiographical, and he’s not entirely wrong,” Ponicsán said.

After realizing that he’s trapped in the town where he finds himself by circumstances that seem vaguely mysterious, the novel’s protagonist DK becomes more if warily fond of Maragate – a place where even locals struggle to explain why tourists would want to go there, where people swoon at the “magenta moment” of sundown for no particular reason, where the whole town turns out weekly to the Spanish Plaza to become besotted on artisanal gin and jerky, where going to the Fourth of July parade and fireworks is a civic duty, and where the repeated phrase “It’s a little slice of heaven” begins to sound like self-hypnosis.

As DK becomes more irritated by and vocally opposed to leaf blowers, he takes on the town’s perennial, seemingly unbeatable mayor directly, even narrowly winning the election to replace him – then finding himself all but fully incorporated into the town’s own mystique.

Maragate, clearly, is not Sonoma: it’s spelled differently, Mayor Hirkill bears scant resemblance to Mayor Brown, and after 200 pages or so it turns out to be in Utah. As the story unspools the allegorical thread is revealed to be about the afterlife, about being consigned to Hell after all, with or without Hope. (The epigraph alone should give it away: “The Gates of Hell are locked from the inside,” according to C.S. Lewis.)

“I tried to maintain as long as I could the question of whether this guy’s in purgatory or just another small town in America,” writes Ponicsán.

But parables and parody aside, the Ponicsáns have put down roots in Sonoma. Married 40 years, they moved here full-time in 2008, they vote here, and they have funded the Shoes for Kids program at La Luz. True, they live part time in Palm Springs, but they only headed there in 2016 when the writer needed a quiet place to work – away from leaf blowers.

Still… it’s fair to say many of the nods, winks and nudges in the novel will bring Sonomans a flash of recognition, usually along with a smile. That is, unless it’s yourself that you recognize.

“It’s been my experience that it is a non-issue now and I am really cool with that,” says Ken Brown today of his role in the leaf-blower controversy.

While there may not be a movie in it – as there have been for several of Ponicsán’s earlier books – not every book is written to become a movie; some are written for different reasons.

The book came out in the fall, to generally favorable reviews. But says the author now, “I don’t get the sense that any Sonomans got their panties in a twist over this book. And if they did, they could overcome it on any given Tuesday night with a corn dog and a nice pinot noir.”

Contact christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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