Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ice Harvest (book review)

The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips is a dark tale about a small country town and its seedy underworld. The first novel by this author, it achieved high popularity in the year 2000 and was made into a feature film five years later. In my opinion, the movie is far superior to the book in almost all respects. Nonetheless, the novel captures more completely the noir genre, though it also feels as though I’m reading a fantastically well written, high-brow parody. With dark undertones, some great black humor and an awesome movie, The Ice Harvest should be read by all.

The plotline chronicles a night in the life of Charlie Arglist, a lawyer working for the local mobsters, whom tires to rob his employers blind. As the story progresses, we see the dark underbelly of the seemingly quiet town in which the novel is set. Throughout the book, we see a variety of, often violent, greedy and vindictive characters that all have an entertaining side story to tell. These tales all eventually amalgamate into Charlie’s plan to rob his boss of millions in dirty money with his partner, Vic. Of course, as with every heist, there’s a beautifully seductive femme fatale to throw a spanner in the works. All of a sudden, fellow mobsters are dying left right and centre, the boss has discovered the plan and Charlie’s wondering about the disappearance of a lap dancer named Desiray.

The story takes place on a snow riddled Christmas Eve of 1979, in the back water town of Wichita, Kansas. The town’s local entrepreneurs’ attempt to set up a chain of strip clubs, brothels and bars has garnered little success, and it’s these places of business which set the backdrop for the better half of the story. Through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, Charlie Arglist, the small town seems like a shade down from being Las Vegas. Even when Charlie makes a trip to see his ex wife and whish his children a merry Christmas, the air is full of cursing, violence and tension. Such a settings as a suburban house are few and far between in this novel, wherein Charlie bounces from one strip club to the next, talking to the owner for a few minutes before he realizes that he has to return to the club he just visited, only to repeat the process again in a seemingly unending cycle. Thankfully, the cycle dissipates as the novel begins its second stanza. From there on, Charlie moves away from the quiet little town and the novel, unsurprisingly, takes on a lighter mood. This mood, however, does not stop disaster from striking its characters.

The characters of the novel each have their own charms, but, with the with the exception of a few, they all follow the same formula. That is violence, seediness and lies. There’s an excess of dumb blonde exotic dancers, lovable but psychotic barkeeps and wives who can be just as moral lacking as their husbands. Charlie Arglist, the central character, seems at home in a world of beer and breasts and I don’t really see where his desire to screw it over stems from. His, literally, partner in crime, Vic Cavanaugh, is the worst of the worst type of people. His greedy, spiteful and just plain evil demeanor was captured effortlessly on screen by Billy Bob Thornton and is even more evident in the novel. Both these men, unbeknownst to each other, somehow become romantically involved with Renata, the beautiful owner of local gentleman’s club, the Sweet Cage. In this story, she acts as a catalyst, which of the two does she really love, and which does she plan to kill? After wading through the swamp of emotionally wanting characters in this, there are still glimpses of a lighter side. Charlie’s drunken ex brother-in-law, Pete, serves as some slight comic relief while dancing girl Rusti finds love by the end of that cold night.

All in all, the novel is a perfect example of noir being brought into the new millennium. Having the utmost skillful writing, Scott Philips shows his talent for the genre. However, whilst reading this I couldn’t shake the feeling I was reading a parody. Its pitch perfect; too much so, in fact. The characters, while the genre makes this unavoidable, are blatant cliché’s. Everything Charlie experiences has been done before; even the ending is all too formulaic. That said, the factor which sets this novel apart from mere noir emulators is the delivery. Its mood, timing and twists turn an otherwise mediocre book into something worth consideration.

Another thing that I found troublesome with this novel was the seediness. While I understand it is yet another unavoidable facet of the genre, the book is quite dirty. Take, example, this excerpt from page 26 “Francie had already dropped her G-string and she crouched awkwardly, concentrating hard, trying to take the five-dollar bill from Culligan’s palsied hand with her labia.” Now why does the writer feel he has to share that with his audience? It detaches the reader from the story, being unable to envision the highly unrealistic situation. It is in this alienation of the audience which lets the book down so. One feels no compassion for the smutty characters or their even smuttier lives.

Still, the book’s brilliant writing supports it all the way. The book is a great case study and an enjoyable read that should be experienced by the masses. It is, for all it’s fault, worthy of it’s
critical acclaim.

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