An Appreciation Of (And Apology To) Scott Phillips

After our MysteryPeople Top 10 Of 2011 list was published on our blog, I realized I made a grave error. I had forgotten to put Scott Philips’ The Adjustment on it. Not only was it a book I loved, pushing the genre in a unique direction, and the fact that he’s one of my favorite writers, but he’s also on one of my good friends (at least up until then).

Scott has a history of great work that has never quite gotten the attention it deserves. Even though his work exists in a shared universe, he never writes the same novel twice, making him difficult to categorize for some. In many ways, he is as much a satirist as anything else, using gene to frame his commentary without drawing attention to it.

No book did that better than his debut, The Ice Harvest. The story follows Charlie Arglist, a morally bankrupt Kansas lawyer spending his Christmas Eve going from bar to strip club, tying up loose ends after executing a mysterious plan, before he skips town. He careens around a beautiful, icy strip club owner, a drunken ex-in law, his partner, and several other shady, two-faced citizens, who pose as much danger as the town’s winter streets. This book gets funnier as it gets darker, leaving you with one of the most talked about endings among noir enthusiasts.

Ice Harvest also introduced us to Wayne Ogden, an unscrupulous character who plays an important part in that ending. He became the lead in Scott’s next book, The Walkaway, which starts over a decade after, as well as sometime before, The Ice Harvest. Phillips switches from chapter to chapter with an Alzheimer-stricken Wayne’s search for the only woman he truly loved and the sordid details of their affair. Scott has said it is the closest he’ll get to a happy ending. That said, don’t expect Danielle Steele.

And don’t expect Zane Grey when Scott goes to post-Civil War Kansas to look at Wayne’s photographer and saloon owner grandfather, Bill, in Cottonwood. Bill becomes partners with a businessman who says he knows the railroad will be coming through town. As that prospect becomes doubtful, he has an affair with the man’s wife. Part noir, part western, with a lot of humor and a mass murdering family thrown in, Cottonwood pokes holes in the ideas of rugged individualism and founders of the community as well as exploring a point in time where the West became The Midwest.

Scott has continued the Ogden saga. The family has appeared in various short stories. A humorous standout, “The Girl Who Kissed Barnaby Jones” that appears in LA Noir, has Wayne’s grandson dealing with a crazy actress/waitress. He also visits a member of the clan in the dystopian future with his novel Rut.

Last year Scott returned with Wayne, just out of the Army, in The Adjustment. He’s back at his job, which mainly consists of protecting his philandering boss and missing the action he saw in the war. For Wayne, that action was in how he used his supply sergeant position to be a pimp and black marketer. He chases his boredom by cheating on his pregnant wife and getting involved with pornographers and a blackmail scheme, all while getting mysterious letters from someone who knows about his war time past.

The book is so suspenseful, raunchy, hilarious, and just down right fun it’s easy to forget how skillfully written it is and the subtle yet scathing comments it makes on our past. No matter how repugnant the characters, Scott’s genius ear for dialogue gives them a voice you can relate to. His pornographers have as much decency as his preachers. All are trying to find their way back to “normalcy”, having lost the definition after five years of war. Some, like Wayne, redefine it or maybe forget about it all together. The Adjustment looks at The Greatest Generation from an angle Tom Brokaw missed.

It is Phillips’ ability to show the ugly side of these sacred cows that make him an important author. We live in a period when many use those cows to take us to the slaughter. Phillips shows the hypocrisy in those legends and the ones who exploit them. His books are great reading during election years.

Scott has said he writes dirty books for a living. If so, there is something very sacred in his profanity.He gives an entertaining yet unblinking tour of America and a heartland that is dark at heart.

I only hope he can find it in his own heart to forgive me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s