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Review: First-time novelist Phillips reaps a chilly -- and effective -- 'Ice Harvest'

Review: First-time novelist Phillips reaps a chilly -- and effective -- 'Ice Harvest'

"The Ice Harvest"
By Scott Phillips
217 pages

In this story:

Two characters, irritating each other

Wretched situations

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(CNN) -- Reading "The Ice Harvest" is like leaving a Champagne tasting to drink lighter fluid in a sewer with rats; not something you'd do every day, but definitely an eye-opening change of pace. First-time author Scott Phillips (a former journalist) has penned a startlingly dark and funny noir novel, in which amorality reigns supreme and trying to act like a decent human being will kill you.

On a snowbound Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, in 1979, a lawyer-cum-petty-mobster named Charlie Arglist is drinking away the hours before a crucial meeting with his "business partner," Vic Cavanaugh. Charlie and Vic have been running a string of strip bars around Wichita for an out-of-town crime boss named Bill Gerard, and they've been skimming cash while they were at it.

Charlie passes the time by drunkenly careening from one club to another ("I got a membership everywhere"), visiting all the outposts in his "empire" one last time. While reeling around town, Charlie makes a bad mistake: He lets his feelings direct his actions, something no self-respecting criminal in Phillips' world would allow, and the results prove disastrous.

Two characters, irritating each other

First, he comps some of his dancers' shakedown money (an important source of revenue for Gerard). This will later cause a riot at the club, which will attract the police, something Gerard does not like. Then Charlie slips one of the club's owners, a mysterious beauty named Renata on whom he has a mad crush, a useful blackmail photo which Gerard would rather not have floating around.

Charlie wants to visit all the ghosts of his wrecked life before he disappears entirely, and his efforts to do so provide hilarious dark comic relief, which nicely contrasts with the swelling undercurrent of Gerard's inevitable response.

Charlie and his ex-brother-in-law (a booze-swilling, coke-snorting, vomitous clown named Pete) crash the Christmas gathering of their cumulative ex-family, after which Pete befouls Charlie's Lincoln, so Charlie simply swipes his ex-wife's new car, which he crashes several times as he idly wonders about his family, past and present, and realizes he doesn't remember much about any of them. He is abruptly jolted out of his reverie when Vic fails to make the meeting, and Charlie discovers a fresh corpse buried behind the house, and realizes his hours are numbered.

Now Charlie must scramble to recover the missing money and escape Gerard -- except that someone is quietly going around disposing of all of Gerard's staff, and Charlie doesn't know how far down the list he may be.

Wretched situations

Phillips' debut shows a keen grasp of humor and development of dramatic tension, as well as a subtle psychological depiction of his seedy characters, particularly the semi-remorseful Charlie.

His frigid Midwestern setting, reminiscent of Scott Smith's "A Simple Plan," is the perfect frame for Charlie's wretched situation, and the time period emphasizes the low-level viciousness of his contemporaries (by millennial standards, Charlie's take is downright paltry, but that doesn't slow the bloodletting).

This little gem of a book comes complete with an unforseeable, shocking twist of an ending, which is likely to leave readers gasping for breath (in fear, laughter, or, most likely, both). "The Ice Harvest" should bear a rich yield.

Review: Surprising complexity to 'A Simple Plan'
December 15, 1998

Ballantine (Random House)

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