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Book review: 'The Adjustment' by Scott Phillips

August 25, 2011 | 10:35 am

Scottphillips_adjustment Noir is a literature of limited choices: for the people who write it and the people about whom they write. Like most popular genres, it relies on formula, but at its best, it subverts that formula even as it pays homage.

We all understand the set-up: a desolate world, devoid of possibility, in which characters operate out of sin or self-interest, and even the good are compromised. This is why noir first flourished in the Depression, and also why it seems to speak so well to our current circumstances -- because in difficult times, things get elemental quickly, as our illusions (that we are good, that we are civilized, that we look out for each other) are revealed to be the most desperate sorts of lies. 

Scott Phillips' fourth novel, "The Adjustment," dispenses with such illusions from the beginning, taking place in a landscape of such moral bleakness that there is nowhere to go but down. The narrator is Wayne Ogden, a World War II vet back home in Wichita, Kansas, where he works as a fixer for Everett Collins, the debauched owner of a local aircraft firm.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with Wayne's efforts to keep his boss in power, by whatever means necessary -- whether that means setting up abortions for the office girls he knocks up, or blackmailing the company's board members who want him out. But really, this is Wayne's story, and what makes it memorable is his hulking presence, drifting through the world as hungry and blank-eyed as a shark, waiting for the opportunity to make his kill.

Wayne was a quartermaster during the war, and he has no qualms about running anything, from girls to drugs to porn. He has a house and a wife and a baby on the way, but even when he's taking care of them, he does so with a casual brutality, as when he visits a furniture store to renegotiate a trade-in deal.

"I was a little disappointed," he admits, "that old Bellows caved in so quickly when his soon-in-law phoned him. What I'd really wanted was to smash one of their expensive tables to pieces and beat Mr. Stan Franklin to a bleeding pulp with one of its legs, after which I might allow the remainder of the sales force to flee before I soaked the place in kerosene and watched it burn to the ground."

There's something compelling about that sort of rage, about its compression, its control. It's the same rage anyone might feel in an extreme circumstance, yet here it’s just a fact of life. Not much happens in "The Adjustment," which spins off characters and themes Phillips wrote about in "The Walkaway" and "The Ice Harvest" -- or not much that Wayne can't handle, anyway. But what draws us to the book is Phillips' taut and vicious vision, so clean we cannot help but inhabit it, even when we find ourselves repelled.

This, too, is the essence of noir, which works by putting us in touch with our own inner darkness, our desolation and despair. Phillips makes that clear when, late in the novel, Wayne stops at a diner where the man next to him at the counter insists that nothing matters, despite the fact we think it does. Briefly, Wayne listens, thinking about not much at all. Then, he tells us, "I nodded and finished my egg sandwich, swigged down my coffee, and went home."

-- David L. Ulin