RARA-AVIS: Scott Phillips: The Walkaway

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 02 Sep 2002

It's been generally agreed on the list that Scott Phillips's ICE HARVEST
(2000) was excellent. It's a short book and everything happens in one long night, Christmas Eve, 1979, in Wichita, Kansas. Charlie Arglist, a lawyer who helps run some strip clubs, is driving around visiting and drinking, waiting until he meets his partner Vic Cavanaugh at 2 am. I saw one review that said the reader knows what's going on but not what's happening, and that's a good way of putting it.

Phillips's new book is THE WALKAWAY (2002), and the archives show that only Mr. Lankford has mentioned it. I read it yesterday and it's also excellent. It's a much longer book, with a much bigger scope. It's got two intermingled parts: in 1959, Wayne Ogden blows back into town after coming back from a stint in the army in Japan; in 1989, Gunther Fahnstiel
(who we met at the end of ICE HARVEST), walks out the old folks' home he's in and goes on a senile quest for something he can't remember. It's the reverse of Arglist's travel in the first book: Arglist was killing time until a definite appointment, but Fahnstiel is steadily working to get somewhere that doesn't exist any more.

ICE HARVEST was very close and tight and linear, and Phillips exploded for this book. The narrative is complicated and there are so many characters, related by blood, marriage, adultery or history, that it takes a while to get it all figured out.

The best way I can think to explain THE WALKAWAY and ICE HARVEST is that it's like a big jigsaw puzzle, in three parts that all fit together into one large picture. There's the mechanical aspect, where each time a new piece is set in, you have a better sense of the whole thing. There are some things revealed in the end that you know must be coming because that's how the picture has to be. But there are pieces all the way through that you didn't expect, that make parts of the picture, or all of it, look very different. There are little things about the characters that make you see things 10 or 30 years before in a new way, or something about a conversation that you know will change the way someone's life will go. It's really pleasing and surprising the way Phillips locks everything all together by the end.

Phillips has said he wanted to write books like the ones he likes to read, and he likes the ones we like: Willeford, Thompson, and Pelecanos, I'd say, among others. He's definitely his own man, though.

A tip: if it's been a while since you read ICE HARVEST, reread it before hitting the new book. Everything will fit together a lot better.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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