Scott Phillips' 'Walkaway': a prairie noir saga

August 04, 2002|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

The Walkaway, by Scott Phillips. Ballantine Books. 304 pages. $22.

Gunther Fahnstiel, approaching, is the "walkaway," absconding from Lake Vista old age home in search of a past imminent senility has already rendered dim.

There was a quarry, a body, a briefcase filled with money ... in what order, he cannot remember. The setting is Cottonwood, a suburb of Wichita, Kan., in two time frames, the post-war confusions of 1952 and 1979, where the consequences of youth have left everyone in this book settled in gloom, regrets, hopelessness and failed dreams.

In this, his second novel, Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest), attempts a prairie noir, pornography, infidelity and theft, brass knuckles, prostitution rings and booze, cops and soldiers in the sunshine of the Great Plains. As in films noir of the 1940s, the characters are flat, without self-awareness or goals; they are reactive, glad enough to survive by the last scene.

After an endless day of mishaps, Gunther returns to the quarry where he murdered his lover Sally's husband, Wayne Ogden, even as he is now unable to remember exactly who Sally is. In the earlier timeline, Wayne returns from the American Occupation of Japan, having been outscammed by a Frenchman; he is AWOL from a future pilfering from the military.

None of these characters are of any great interest.

What counts in the novel noir, as in the film, is the atmosphere. Description must carry the book, and this one is appropriately sleazy: "The lobby stank as I walked in, a smell of moldy carpets and un-emptied ashtrays and semi-catatonic residents sitting in the split-seamed piss-stained armchairs of the lobby all day long."

Smoky music accompanies the violence at the Hitching Post where Wayne is beaten senseless. A whore with a lantern jaw named Beulah dies by Wayne's hand while her husband Elishah cares only about his next heroin fix. By the end, Elishah has not yet discovered Beulah's body flung by Wayne down into their basement.

Out in rural Cottonwood in 1979, things aren't much better. Whores patrol the sidewalks in front of the motels; only one, the Stars and Stripes, is fit for the endless duration of a single night. The analogy to the military newspaper is opaque.

Phillips' larger point may well be that the cultural entropy, which has befallen America, began with the moral vacuum following World War II.

The food is ersatz (gooey pizza rolls are the best Gunther can find in Sally's daughter Loretta's refrigerator). During the war, women sold their bodies in a cabin by the quarry, and the cops learned to duplicate the violence of their adversaries. All one can hope for, now, as then, is a genteel solitude just above the poverty line. World War II and Korea left America, Phillips suggests, with throwaway people, bottom dwellers bereft of either charm or sensibility. Sidney -- Gunther's actual son, but officially his stepson -- in the 1979 timeline owns strip bars, establishments no different from those Wayne Ogden cultivated on his return to America from Japan in 1952.

Film Noir proposed heroes. Out of the chaos and moral dementia came -- Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and even stylish George Raft. This novel noir has only Gunther, grateful for small moments of lucidity, and the tired women he once bedded: Dot and Sally.

Dot's granddaughter Tricia might have been a promising character, but she isn't given enough to do. Sidney is a decent fellow, like his father, and The Walkaway makes do with that.

Joan Mellen is author of 15 books, including biography, criticism and fiction. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is completing a biography of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.