Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Waiting for Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips' first two novels set in 20th Century Kansas -- The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway -- were bleakly comic affairs connected by a brilliant link of shared history.

There's a similar link in his third book, Cottonwood, but you have to read the epilogue to fully appreciate it. Meanwhile, while we all wait for a new book from this most gifted author, we can enjoy the pleasures of Phillips' unique and pungent prose, as well as his skill and daring at moving us through a well-covered narrative landscape.

The story begins in 1872, in the frozen mud of Cottonwood, Kan., a profoundly unpromising place where ambitious Bill Ogden, 27, has largely abandoned his failing farm to run the local saloon and try to work at what he really likes, photography. Left to their own devices on the farm, Ogden's young son treats him with a decided lack of interest and his wife has taken to sleeping with the hired hands. This doesn't seem to bother Ogden, who has his own sexual needs taken care of by various women in town.

"One thing I particularly valued about the prairie was the reticence of most of those living there, and the lack of interest, or overt interest anyway, in one's neighbor's origins," Ogden says, and you can sense in his words the classic loner of Western literature and a man unsure of his abilities to control himself within the bounds of society.

Temptation arrives in Cottonwood in the form of slick Chicago operator Marc Leval, who announces convincing plans to turn the town into a railroad hub and promises vast prosperity. Ogden is more taken by the promise of Leval's lovely wife, Maggie, but he is shrewd enough to also sign on as Leval's partner in a new saloon. Then the book's tone deepens and darkens, as a growing number of traveling salesmen and itinerant cowboys begin to disappear. Their deaths are traced to a family of predators known as The Bloody Benders (based on an actual criminal clan), and it's during the hunt for these killers that Ogden and Leval have a serious falling out.

From this point, Ogden--accompanied by Maggie Leval--begins an odyssey that reads like a modern, deconstructionist version of a story by Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce and moves from Cottonwood to San Francisco and back again, covering a sizable slice of American history. We can only imagine what he'll do next.