Friday, June 20, 2008

Scott Phillips, "Cottonwood" (2003).

You could be forgiven for never having heard of Scott Phillips. The sad fact is that most contemporary American authors languish in almost total obscurity. The few that do break out into a broader public consciousness (like Cormac McCarthy, for instance) never quite reach the status of celebrity. That's likely because of the increasing illiteracy of this country. But it also has to with the predominance of other forms of popular culture. Most of the drones across this wide land can identify even the most untalented actors who appear in mainstream movies. Even so, not everyone in Hollywood gets name recognition. Only the top three or four directors would be recognized by the average citizen. Screenwriters are even more anonymous.

So it should be no surprise that the release of The Ice Harvest (2005) did little or nothing to advance the fame of Scott Phillips. After all, he was only the author of the book by the same name. And to add a further factor of remove, he generally writes about Kansas. Middle America has never been particularly sexy as far as the media is concerned. Still Phillips is not necessarily writing inaccessible stories. Among the literary cognoscenti, he is known for writing darkly comic neo-noir crime fiction. Much of his writings have been set in the mid-20th Century and before, but as with most material dealing with betrayal, thievery, and violence- Phillips' themes are easily transportable to the modern mind.

His third novel is titled Cottonwood, and it is his only book that I have read. It takes place in a small Kansan town at the end of the 19th Century. Like many other places located in that geography during that time, Cottonwood is portrayed as a settlement on the cusp of major changes. A stranger from Chicago (Marc Leval) and his wife have recently come to town, and they are building the most elaborate household ever seen in the territory. Leval employs many of the long-time inhabitants in the construction trade, and therefore garners plenty of popularity from the start. He successfully predicts the imminent arrival of the railroad, and therefore inspires confidence in his tale of a new cattle drive route through town.

Leval quickly consolidates his influence by befriending the local barkeep, Bill Ogden. A former farmer and gravedigger, Ogden is at a sort of crossroads in his life. He has left his Dutch immigrant wife Ninna on the margins of civilization, snugly in the arms of the farmhand that he himself hired to till his fields. Oddly this doesn't bother Ogden much, as whatever affection had once characterized his marriage is long gone. So he's pretty much free to pursue his own devices, which includes running his saloon and sleeping with whomever he can wrangle an invitation from. Naturally this is a growing source of conflict between Ogden and Leval as they cement their new business partnership. Mrs. Leval is quite beautiful and equipped with a wandering eye.

There are other troubles brewing on the outskirts of Cottonwood. People have been disappearing during their journeys into the wilderness. It soon becomes clear that a German family called the Benders may have something to do with the waylaid travelers. They run a sort of bed-and-breakfast alongside their freakishly thriving apple orchard, and it seems that many who decide to spend the night end up sleeping there for an eternity. This doesn't bode well for Leval's plans to build a new metropolis, and so he and Ogden set out to confront the situation. Phillips shows a deft touch in integrating regional historical figures (the Benders) into an otherwise fictional narrative. His prose is simple and straightforward, and moves at a brisk pace.
While I wouldn't be tempted to call Cottonwood a "future classic", I can understand why Hollywood has come a'calling to the Phillips homestead.

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