Sunday, May 11, 2014

Scott Phillips is full of creosote and horseshit*

Scott Phillips' novels Cottonwood and the new Hop Alley take farmer/salonkeeper/photographer Bill Ogden through Kansas, Nebraska, and into Denver in the 1870s, and Hop Alley's final chapter suggests that a sojourn in San Francisco is not out of the question:
"And what would you say is the worst part of [California], Mister? South or north?"

"I'll tell you, I've never encountered a worse or baser bunch than those in San Francisco. Debauchery and vice, and all in the name of mammon. It was gold that cursed that town, sir, and the more gold they brought up from the ground, the more Satan smiled."

"I nodded and thanked him ... and as I boarded the train I found the idea growing in me:
William Sadlaw, Photographic Gallery, San Francisco, Cal., Sittings by Appointment Only."
That's where Kevin Starr comes in. Phillips writes fiction so rich and detailed that it could be history; Starr writes histories of California so vivid that they could be fiction, and he singles out San Francisco for its blend of frontier lawlessness and the hastily imported cosmopolitan sophistication of an Atlantic trading port. It's the perfect destination for Ogden (who here calls himself Bill Sadlaw, in an effort to escape the law's attention).

Phillips' version of the American West is richer, bawdier, and funnier than most, but there's no hint of the self-congratulatory alternative about it. Phillips simply has a breathtaking sense of the possibilities open to a young man on the run, plunked down amid wide-open spaces and credulous populations. There's even a whodunit at the heart of Hop Alley: Ogden/Sadlaw knows the real killer of a pressman for the local newspaper (It wasn't the Chinese residents of Hop Alley, attacked by angry mobs.) He saves an innocent victim from lynching, but he moves on rather than going to the law and trying to set things right. Hop Alley is no conventional crime novel, after all, but if you're looking for a richly detailed picaresque crime Western of America, you won't go wrong with Scott Phillips.

(The Ogden name will be familiar to readers of Phillips' novels set in more recent times. Wayne Ogden is the protagonist of The Adjustment, a spiritual as well as a familial descendant of Bill Ogden.)
* "With the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains in the near distance and the smell of creosote and horseshit mingling in my nostrils I sat on the flat rooftop, exposing prints and idly contemplating the great rectangles of glass that comprised the skylights of my studio."
Hop Alley, page 33
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Dana King said...

A new Scott Philips is always eagerly anticipated.

May 12, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He should write a sprawling epic. I await his books eagerly, and he seems a shame to read through them so quickly when they do arrive.

I may have to return to Cottonwood or The Adjustment or Ice Harvest.

May 12, 2014  

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