I failed in my first attempt to read "The Ice Harvest" by Scott Phillips, a dark, dark book about the last day in the life of small-time Midwestern crook. I read the book from cover to cover but I concentrated a little too much on the words and not the voices, the dialogue.
What I mean is, I missed the humor. And Phillips assures me that "The Ice Harvest," while not a comedy, has many funny moments.
"You're one of the people who didn't think it was funny, but there have been others. In fact, it's a common reaction," said Phillips. "But I want people to see the humor."
With that, Phillips read me a portion of this book over the phone. The scene he read takes place on a Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, in parking lot snow bank outside the Sweet Cage strip bar where a bartender named Sidney is methodically breaking the fingers, one by one, of a musician named Stroke. The main character, a lawyer named Charlie Arglist, stops to ask Rusti, a stripper, why the bartender is breaking the boy's fingers.
Let's just say that it does sound a lot different when Phillips reads the passage. Still not hysterical, but a lot more absurd. So when you read this book, keep that thought in mind - it is a dark book, but you'll find lighter, absurdist moments and plenty of black humor.
"A lot of the humor comes from the reading, the characterization, the performances," said Phillips. And you'll have the opportunity to test his theory on Sunday, Jan. 21, when Phillips will be in Davis giving a reading at The Avid Reader downtown.
Phillips grew up in Wichita, attended Wichita State, lived in France for several years, and became friends with Davis resident David Masiel, who also lived in France for a time.
Later, Masiel and Phillips collaborated on several screenwriting projects and Phillips ended up spending a good deal of time in Davis.
Last month when "The Ice Harvest" was named a New York Times Notable book, the publisher, Ballantine, decided to give Phillips a travel budget for a book tour. "I asked that Davis be included in the tour," he said. "It feels like home." His actual home, at least at present, is in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and young daughter.
While Phillips said he enjoyed working with Masiel and the collaboration that's required in the movie industry, he finally wanted to write something on his own, just for fun.
(These guys may work together well, but they also work well separately. Masiel's first book, "Chasing Moneymaker," will be published next year.) "I wanted to write something just to please myself," Phillips said. "So I wrote 'The Ice Harvest' and put it in a drawer. Later, I got a good agent and she sold it immediately in Britain and that led to a two-book deal with Ballantine.
"But I just set out to write the kind of book I wanted to read. I like books by James Crumley and Charles Willeford," Phillips said.
He chose to write a book about a very talented, very lazy attorney, Charlie, who finds it easier to work for the mob than build up his own law practice, easier to get divorced than to maintain a family, easier to steal from his boss than to do his job.
"The only people who really hate him are those people who used to love him, like his kids or ex-wife," said Phillips. "The people with whom he has casual relationships like him just fine."
"The Ice Harvest" has been optioned for a movie, but you never know. "Having a day job writing novels is the greatest job I can imagine," said Phillips.
And in the Hollywood hierarchy, there's much more prestige attached to being a published novelist than one of the many free-lance screenwriters knocking about.
"If I ever do any screenwriting again it will be for hire," Phillips promised. Maybe he'll be hired to write the screenplay to "The Ice Harvest" or his second novel "The Walkaway." Stranger things have happened.
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