Friday, August 28, 2009

Read: "Cottonwood" by Scott Phillips

Read: Cottonwood by Scott Phillips, 2004, 9780345461002.

I previously read Phillip's Ice Harvest and Walkaway. Both those books were well above average and the Wichita settings were fun for me. Both were period pieces and the sex angle ofWalkaway and Wichita history were quite neat. I had no idea Phillips had a third book out until I saw a reference to Phillips in a picture caption on Anthony Neil Smith's blog. Just goes to show that Smith is good for something after all. That and he did a piece on rural noir not too long ago that plugged my current read, Give Us A Kiss, which I am enjoying.

This one was damn good. One of the best books I have read in a while. And I have been sceraming through books this year. Set in 1873 and 1890 in the fictional Kansas town of Cottonwood.

Plot: Bill Ogden came out to Cottonwood with his wife a few years before 1973 to farm. Bill hated farming and started a saloon while a hired man helped work the farm. Bill still works the farm in the mornings but has mostly abandoned his wife and young son and lives in the city to work the saloon and sometimes do photographic portraits.

A rich guy from Chicago, Marc Leval, starts building a mansion in town with the hope that a new rail line coming through town will make Cottonwood a cattle train destination and make Leval even richer. Bill partners with Leval for a bigger saloon in anticipation of the coming boom. Meanwhile Bill gets the hots for Marc's wife, Maggie. Bill starts plugging Maggie. Bill avoids a local slut. Local slut's family, the Benders, turn out to be mass murderers who kill and steal from travelers. Family flees after being found out.

Bill joins the Bender posse and is partnered with Leval. Leval tries to shoot Bill in the back and misses. Bill shoots Leval in chest and leaves him for dead. Bill skulks out of town with Maggie. Bill and Maggie flee to CO and have an acrimonious split after a couple years. Bill ends up in San Francisco in 1890 after a 13 year break in the narrative. Bill sees newspaper article that the Bender women may have been caught. Bill decides to head back to Cottonwood for the trial. Bill finds that Marc Leval is still alive. Bill finds that Maggie had a son by Bill. Bill is convinced the two women are not the Benders. Bender women convicted anyway. Bill finds out that Leval and a couple others killed the Bender family, connived with the Bender's fence, and took all the loot. Bill kills the unrepentant scumbag who was in cahoots with the Benders. Bill and Maggie get back together in the end.

Bill is a self absorbed prick. Maybe it is due to a rough upbringing and Army service in the Civil War. He's more concerned with getting laid and making money than caring about others. He's mostly abandoned his wife in Cottonwood and barely interacts with his son. He runs off with another man's wife and then abandons the woman in CO when he moves to another town. When in San Francisco he lowers his rent by fucking his landlady. When he gets returns to Cottonwood he screws that landlady as well.

But, Bill does have a strong side towards justice. He tries to intervene in a town lynching in 1873. He owns a building in San Francisco that he won in a poker game and tries to help out the tenant running the rotgut saloon in it. Bill joins the posse to get the Bloody Benders. Bill ultimately kills the last remaining member of the Bender clan in 1890 and tries to force intervention on behalf of the suspected Bender women. He ultimately "redeems" himself in the end by reconnecting with his children and taking care of his family.

All in all a great book with a great lead character. Great period touch for SE KS. Good characters in the local bigwigs of Cottonwood from their starts in 1873 to their wealthy status in 1890.

EDIT: Forgot to mention that Phillips took a true story, the Benders, and incorporated the tale into the novel. He mentions al source in the author's note that would be worthwhile checking out, The Benders of Kansas.

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