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The Ice Harvest

Scott Phillips

Ballantine / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-345-44018-8

Publication Date: 10-31-2000

217 Pages; $19.95

Date Reviewed: 02-16-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004




As a reader, you might think it difficult to tell where pulp ends and noir begins. Both are from the wrong side of the tracks, and both play largely in the bad part of town. So it's hard to fault Ballantine for giving 'The Ice Harvest' such a classy cover. From the demure and evocative title and the noirish photo of cracking ice, you'd have a hard time guessing that this is a prime piece of pulp fiction. A cover featuring a scantily-clad gal twirling on a pole for an audience of slack-jawed droolers would probably be much more appropriate. But don't think for a minute that prime pulp fiction is written with any less skill or any less verve than any other fiction, in or out of a genre. 'The Ice Harvest' demonstrates otherwise, while keeping its feel firmly in the world of slightly odorous paperbacks bought from the confines of a cramped liquor store. Phillips' little tale of betrayal and decay displays wit and skillful execution even when describing not-so-skillful executions.

Straightforward is the order of the day in 'The Ice Harvest'. Think of it as a day in the life of your worst nightmare version of a trial lawyer, in this case, Charlie Anglist. He's saying goodbye to Wichita for reasons that become clear in the course of the novel -- but certainly not immediately. The first 100 pages of the book find him bopping back and forth between various strip joints that he has a more than shady connection with. Just how shady -- and why -- will become apparent. If the scum-encrusted background is not depressing enough, then the fact that the action is taking place on Christmas Eve should add just the right amount of barbiturate to this enjoyable evil cocktail. Factor in some nasty co-workers, nastier ex-spouses and a tidy little sum of money and you've got just the kind of reading that would warm the heart of any convict serving two to ten for aggravated assault and battery.

What 'The Ice Harvest' lacks in warm-heartedness it makes up for with pulpy prose that has a lot of personality. Phillips is a master of low-key atmospherics, and he knows how to have fun in his very limited cross-section of low life. 'The Ice Harvest' is filled with any number of laugh-out-loud moments for those who find creative cursing an art form worthy of high-minded pursuit. Phillips has a way of conveying character and atmosphere in prose so compact you could tie it to the feet of a dead mobster to make sure the body sinks and never sees the light of day again. And if you ignore the dust jacket copy, you'll be plunged into a pleasantly oblique world that's instantly recognizable but happily untrod by your own tender feet. And as the world of Charlie Anglist unfolds, trust me, you'll be happy you don't have to walk a mile in those shoes.

For readers searching for a classy noir, 'The Ice Harvest' is likely to be a bit too sordid and mean-minded. Nobility has left the building, if ever it was there, and it's not going to make an appearance. Knights in shining armor, or even well-worn trench coats, are only going to show up on a black and white TV with bad reception. When was the last time you thought about buying the child you know and love a cheap and dusty toy in grungy gas station? If the very thought of this oppresses your sensibility of life as you wish to know and experience it, then 'The Ice Harvest' might be a bit on the cold side for your tastes. On the other hand, if you can imagine the gift-scenario as the crux of mean-spirited but still hilarious joke, then 'The Ice Harvest' is the kind of cash crop you can't afford to miss.

Phillips bravely treads in well-worn territory with this novel but does so with a sure sense of style and panache that set him apart from the merely exploitative. He's re-invigorated the life-is-cruddy sensibility of past masters like Charles Willeford and brought it up to shuddering speed in 1979. Ugly is as ugly does here. If haunting a strip mall filled with strip clubs on Christmas Eve with losers whose very existence threatens to pull you down into their orbit sounds like your idea of a good time, then Scott Phillips has mastered a nasty little corner of the universe that you need to read to experience. Short, sharp and spiky like a drink made with bad liquor, 'The Ice Harvest' does a fantastic job of leaving a bad taste in your mouth.