“Cottonwood” by Scott Phillips is a thoroughly nasty little book. Billed as a “different kind of Western,” the cover blurb says: “Scott Philiips is dark, dangerous, and important. ‘Cottonwood’ is crime fiction at its best.” I suppose that’s why I bought it -- aside from it being cheap and from my fondness for cottonwoods.
In the first place, it’s not a Western -- it’s a MID-Western in the days when small towns were forming and trying to align themselves for prosperity. In this case, a prosperity that never comes. But the plot is right out of a contemporary Broadway musical: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” It is also “ripped from the headlines” of old Kansas newspapers: the story of the Bender family, who evidently refrained from eating their butchered victims but drained their blood into their cellar hole and buried them in shallow graves in an orchard which thrived with such fertilizer. An awful lot of recycling going on here.
What the author did was to tell the story of the crimes in the first part of the book, so embedded in screwing, murder, filth and degeneracy that the Benders are hardly noticed, and then revisit the town years later when the early corruptions and thefts have bankrolled a conventional town which is prepared to hang the Bender women for their crimes. The only trouble is that they have the wrong women and the real criminal casually tells the protagonist what happened, without any courtroom dramatics. The protagonist is all that holds the book together.
Bill Ogden, the hero of sorts, is a man on the make, a photographer who spends so much time dipping his wick in any willing female’s reservoir of good times that it’s amazing he has time for anything else. He is made presumably superior, presumably a more reliable and likable witness, only because he reads Greek and Latin and is capable of appreciating fine French food. His adventures provide a very thin narrative trail through the ghastly accounts of frontier life.
This book subscribes to the smart-aleck intelligentsian revelation that those old times were hard and therefore abundantly miserable and disgusting. The criterion appears to be “Deadwood,” the TV show that is actually “NYPD Blue” but with less appeal and very little law and order. In short, “Cottonwood” is evidently expected to be a best seller by pandering to tastes for sensationalism, porn, and violence, all the while clucking with disapproval and superiority. If it is politically incorrect to those these assumptions onto modern urban ghettoes, then they will simply be transferred over to the small town white people of the past, the ancestors of authors like Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis. If challenged, these authors -- often with strong academic connections and a few literary prizes -- claim they are revealing the awful truth, that they are muck-rakers, and they point to those old stories about the Benders, which have already been recycled through two non-fiction books. (Just Google “the Benders.” I’m not going to help you out.)
There’s plenty of fancy writing and bits of foreign language, natural considering that the plains were largely populated by immigrants. There’s plenty of small detail such as genre writers use as signs of authenticity. The motives of the people are always venal, without explanation, and subject to sudden shifts for no apparent reason. I think the idea is that small town people are just that way and educated people would join in sneering at them.
This sort of writing -- sordid and cynical -- seems to have been much encouraged by the career trajectory of Cormac McCarthy who began as a “Southern Gothic” author (His first book was called “The Orchard Keeper.”) describing such phenomena as necrophilia. He progressed to using antique language to tell SW history in the most shocking possible detail, which some think of as being “unblinking.” Now, of course, he’s much admired and has backed off from the horror of the past to imagining the horror of the future.
There is one passage of “Cottonwood” that shows what the author COULD do if he thought it would be popular, i.e. sell. In his wanders Ogden stumbles into a greenhouse made entirely of old glass negatives, so that he looks up at a ceiling of faces and figures. “...I looked timorously back up to find the transparent lady still staring at me, her wistful smile as faint and pretty as condensed breath on the pane, tendering grace and unearned absolution.” This passage occupies two pages, but he makes nothing of it. Nor does he make much of the popularity of photographing dead people -- whether babies or famous criminals -- and crime scenes. Ogden makes a little money from them now and then -- that’s about it. If a person were doing a serious literary and academic study of the times, it would seem the matter deserves a bit of reflection, even by a participant in the scene. But these people are remarkably incurious, which is lucky for the flimsy plot.
We readers must be leading really boring lives to reach out for such books even after consuming a newspaper full of atrocities and watching television saturated with blood and showered with body parts. Or are we trying to de-sensitize ourselves? Are we depending on ghoul humor (people singing about making other people into pies) to decompress our own feelings? When I was teaching high school in the Sixties, the highway patrol commissioned a horrible movie of car crashes -- the sort of thing that “Lookie Lou’s” gawk at, even when they’re blocking traffic. The films were shown to the kids in hope that it would deter them from drinking and driving. Instead, the reaction was hilarity. The big kids got off for days retelling about the tire tracks across babies, the limbs torn off and the guts unraveled, while the little kids listened with their mouths hanging open.
Lately in Montana there has been a similar campaign revealing the horrors of meth, but the kids seem to be responding more as desired: staying away from meth. I think the difference is that the meth ads, which ARE horrible, are stories. They’re on billboards so they’re short, but they say things like, “I’d do anything for my boyfriend. Then he asked me to sleep with strange men for money.” They are about idealism gone wrong. “I thought nothing could come between me and my mom -- then she tried to stop me from going out.” Mom has a black eye and broken arm.
Authors take note: it’s the story that makes a book. “Cottonwood” is just old news.