NOVEMBER 1, 2013
ONE OF THE GREAT PLEASURES of Scott Phillips’s newest novel, Rake, is imagining it falling into the wrong hands. I can picture an older gentleman coming across it in a bookstore, believing it to be right up his alley (“A crime novel set in Paris!” he’d exclaim). It wouldn’t take him long to discover that Rake was not at all what he’d expected, that the crime involved was not the crime of the Paris cozies he adored, that he’d stumbled into a darkly hilarious world of chirping meanness. I can imagine he’d realize this early in the second section, when the narrator — only referred to by his TV character’s name, Dr. Crandall Taylor — remembers going home with a husband and wife for a night of kinky sex. “[The] three of us headed for their apartment in the sixteenth,” Taylor tells us, “with hubby driving while I fingerbanged milady in the backseat.”
If you’re like me, you’ve been reading Scott Phillips for years (if you haven’t, see Keith Rawson’s great LitReactor column and ask yourself why not), and you’ve come to rely on him for a brand of gleefully twisted noir that steers clear of mainstream conventions by subverting tired genre tropes and satirizing novels that rely too heavily on a noir-by-numbers formula. Phillips’s work is much more in line with masters like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, in that he is unafraid to tell the stories of gritty narcissists who turn dark corners and wind up blazing a savage trail through the world.
Rake is more than just black-hearted noir. It’s up there with Owen King’s Double Feature as a contender for funniest novel of the year. Like Double Feature, it plays with B movie conventions (both novels also have sardonic visions of the filmmaking process) but it is ultimately an achievement of high comic art. In Phillips’s world, there is a thin line between brutality and slapstick. At the beginning of the novel, Taylor hits an intruder over the head with a blunt object and stands over him as he passes out. “I don’t want to hit him again,” Taylor tells us, “having realized that I’ve bludgeoned him with a very fine piece of antique jade, another blow to which might snap it.” Donald Westlake’s great Dortmunder novels come to mind as antecedents; Phillips, like Westlake, is fond of running gags and has the ability to transform the criminal underworld into a deliciously zany place. But Willeford’s The Woman Chaser seems like Rake’s closest relative. Phillips, delivering a study in misanthropic madness, takes all of his cues from Willeford, who — better than anyone — examined the troubled minds of the soulless.
Dr. Crandall Taylor, like Willeford’s Richard Hudson, is a hard-core woman-chaser who uses a deeply perverse logic to justify his promiscuity. Both Taylor and Hudson have ruined psyches, and both are never less than compelling as lunatic guides. We don’t learn the narrator’s given name. He played Dr. Crandall Taylor on an American soap opera called Ventura County which has enjoyed a second life in France and become a massive hit. Taylor lives the life of a star and uses his celebrity to get preferential treatment at clubs and restaurants in Paris and bed down a steady stream of groupies. He also has to deal with old ladies who ask him for medical help and lecture him on how he’s screwing up his TV love life. Taylor speaks and thinks in ornate and flowery language. For instance, after being attacked by a strange American whose face he doesn’t see, he calls an ambulance and then recounts his hospital experience:
They took me to the hospital in Fernand-Widal, where a series of jovial doctors and nurses, having quickly come to the as yet unsubstantiated opinion that nothing was seriously wrong with me, paraded before me joking about having a famous doctor in their midst and asking me my opinion regarding various minor ailments of their own, to which I responded with a good cheer I did not honestly feel (the one exception being a rather attractive, fiftyish nurse who, certain we were alone for a moment, flashed me her quite extraordinary tits, asked if I thought they looked normal and, winking, passed me her phone number).
That’s one of Taylor’s purple patches, and it is indicative of how Phillips keys us into his extravagant voice only to contrast it with his total lack of conscience. Taylor, we learn, is also an ex-Green Beret who is prone to outrageous violence. When he’s almost jumped by a group of young thugs, he takes great joy in beating the hell out them — even, maybe especially, the knife-wielding pregnant girl in the group:
[. . .] I hoped I’d terminated that pregnancy, though inadvertently, if only for the sake of the kid himself. I grew up with a mother like that and buddy, that’s not any way you want to grow up.
Taylor, riding a wave of success that seems to shock even himself, wants to make a film. He has a terrible idea — about the discovery of the Venus de Milo’s arms — and he enlists the help of an eccentric down-on-his-luck novelist named Fred. He’s also started sleeping with the wife of an arms dealer, who he hopes will finance the film. Of course, this latter scenario proves problematic, and Taylor finds himself in a sort of whirlpool of violence with no easy way out. To go into specifics too much beyond that would ruin the pleasant looseness of the book, which really plays out as a series of brutal misadventures.
Phillips has always concerned himself with the dark underside of things, a trait I’ve admired from the start. He’s interested in exposing characters as phonies, in uncovering what’s really going on under the surface, and Rake is no exception. Even though it’s ultimately a comic noir, it is shot through with important suspicions about celebrity and consequence. Phillips, as Rawson reminds us, has no moral center; neither does he moralize. Like Jim Thompson, Phillips is capable of letting the work talk, letting it strut with its feathers out, instead of hitting us over the head with basic philosophical questions like, “Why are some people evil?” and “Why do some people get away with crimes?”
Rake, underpublicized as far as I can tell, is one of the great joys in new noir fiction and should find itself on many year-end lists with recent efforts from Richard Lange, Daniel Woodrell, Sara Gran, and Ace Atkins. If it slipped by you somehow this past summer, correct that now. It’s breezy and twisted fun, a sinister book to savor in a poorly lit dive bar while all your boring relatives are curled up on their sofas with mainstream fluff.