Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fun Bleak Fun: Scott Phillips's The Adjustment

Scott Phillips's new novel The Adjustment is really too new to be an entry in Friday's Forgotten Books, but this post is meant to be a preemptive strike: this novel shouldn't be forgotten or missed.

Phillips returns to his native ground of Wichita, Kansas, in this violent, amoral, darkly funny yarn of ex-serviceman Wayne Ogden's return to civilian life after World War II (that's "the adjustment" of the title). Wayne, however, had a somewhat non-traditional tour of duty in England and Italy, where he focused on pimping and black marketeering. He's quite proud of (and nostalgic about) his wartime activities:

"If you are a reasonably competent and ambitious individual with a bit of initiative and creativity, and a willingness to look at strict regulations as loose guidelines to be skirted when necessary or convenient, there is no better job for you than Master Sergeant in the United States Army Quartermaster Corps"; "The QM Corps gave me thrilling and lucrative work. Men needed the things I offered for sale. Women, some of them beautiful women, relied on my for protection and income, and the army relied on me to distribute whatever I wasn’t able to reroute and sell elsewhere. It was a good life, and by the time it came to its violent end I could see my sweet situation beginning to unravel."

Wayne maintains this wonderfully blithe tone throughout the book -- even when he is committing atrocious acts. Indeed, he seems reminiscent of some of Charles Willeford's great "blithe psychopaths" -- entrepreneurial (and thereby wholly American), funny, seemingly well-intentioned, and smarter than everyone else in the book.

Back in Wichita, Wayne becomes bored with his corporate job at Collins Aircraft as "a bag man and babysitter for an alcoholic skirtchaser" (the company boss, Everett Collins). He's also bored with domestic life and fears his impending fatherhood. Hi-jinx ensue, to say the least.

Interestingly, this book was published by a relatively small press, Counterpoint, which inevitably makes the book easier to miss. Phillips's first novel, The Ice Harvest (great stuff), had a Big Six publisher and was adapted into a so-so, too Hollywoody film. The Adjustment is a fine novel, but maybe its lack of moral compass and distasteful protagonist made it too commercially risky. Who knows, but I'm hoping this book reaches the audience who will dig it.