REVIEW: The Adjustment by Scott Phillips

The Adjustment

Scott Phillips

Counterpoint

224 pp / $25

Fans of Scott Phillips’ 2003 novel, The Walkaway, rejoice: Wayne Ogden is back.

Phillips’ newest novel, The Adjustment, serves as a prequel to The Walkaway, offering a portrait of the monster as a young(er) man. Just back from World War II, Wayne Odgen is among those veterans who are having trouble adapting to life back home. After a brief but fulfilling military career as a pimp and black marketer in Rome, Ogden can’t help but feel stifled by Wichita, Kansas. Trapped in America’s heartland, nothing seems to bring Ogden any satisfaction — not his pregnant wife, Sally, and the prospect of domesticity she offers; not the various women that Ogden seduces on the sly and certainly not his PR job at Collins Aircraft — a job which amounts to little more than being an enabler to Everett Collin’s various vices and addictions. Worse yet, Ogden has started receiving a series of barely-literate poison pen letters that promising an eventual reckoning for the crimes that he committed overseas. Driven to ever further extremes in order to preserve the lifestyle he is nonetheless growing steadily ambivalent towards, Ogden begins the metamorphoses from the spiteful misanthrope he is here to the full-blown psychopath on display in The Walkaway.

Though growing in esteem and influence, genre fiction is too often used nowadays as a mere playground for formal experimentation, a canvas for “literary” fiction to mash-up and reinterpret. And so it’s refreshing to find an author like Phillips, someone who plays it straight and can see past the conventions and verbal tics that postmodernists have exploited to the elements that make noir compelling and complex. The literary heir to Jim Thompson, Phillips demonstrates that the true power of noir lies in that gritty, urban-baroque authorial voice so often parodied but so rarely done right.

For the noir voice is more than just a collection of punchy metaphors and flippant observations strung together; in the best noir, it’s a façade, a mask created by the narrator to distance the reader. If stripped bare, Thompson’s characters are often unrepentant monsters, Chandler and Hammet’s broken sentimentalists. But Phillips puts something new and rather unexpected behind the mask — a coward. Though capable of horrific and dispassionate acts of violence, Wayne Ogden is at heart nothing more than a man fleeing those values that will come to define the post-war American golden age: marriage, fatherhood, domesticity, white collar work. Perhaps Marlowe and Spade were like this once (I’m assuming Thompson’s famous protagonists — namely Pop. 1280’s Nick Corey and The Killer Inside Me’s Lou Ford — were never like this, but that’s beside the point), but the reader never got to see it. By the time we meet most noir protagonists, they’re fully formed, their personas hardened into armor. As The Walkaway suggests, that will one day happen to Ogden too. But The Adjustment takes place before anything has cemented; instead, it tells a story about the infection, the corruption, that brings about such a dramatic change in a man.

The Adjustment points the finger at World War II, alleging that it spoiled the innocence of our boys and that when our armies returned, the sickness somehow infected our national psyche. Violence is a virus, according to Phillips, a terminal disease we caught across the Atlantic. While the Civil War, John Brown, the Glanton Gang, the Trail of Tears and numerous other low points in 19th century American history may challenge the validity of Phillip’s overarching thesis, suggesting that violence may be more endemic to America’s founding spirit, there is no denying that there is no place for Ogden in the America he finds upon his return from war. The end of The Adjustment leaves open the possibility for a follow-up and the exciting potential of a Wayne Ogden trilogy that bridges the gap between the post-war malcontent depicted here and the late 20th-century specter that haunts The Walkaway. If this is in the cards, I am all for it. Wayne Odgen, this quintessential American monster, needs his saga.

***
— Stephen Aubrey is a writer and dramaturg. He can be found here.

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