Ponicsan's 'Eternal Sojourners' a satire on Sonoma life
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:
'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.'