I like me a good down and dirty crime novel as much as I like just about any other read. No one is going to mistake Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest
for great literature any time soon, and that’s a shame because books this enjoyable often get overlooked by the literati. This crime noir moves fast and straight out of the gate with profanity and nastiness. We meet Charlie Arglist, corrupt lawyer and sleazy club owner who spends Christmas Eve moving from strip club to crappy bar and back to another strip club, sucking down the booze and snorting coke when possible.
By chapter two, a man’s been clubbed with a bat, we’ve learned Charlie’s blackmailing some local politicians, and we hear of a bouncer’s plans to break a guitarist’s hands for blacking his (the guitarist’s) girlfriend stripper’s eye. It’s just that kind of book.
The bouncer makes good on that threat, which is no surprise from what we’ve read previously, understanding just what it is we’re talking about here. Care for more? Well, here’s what the bouncer sounds like sweet-talking someone on the phone: “Well, if this isn’t the rat-fuck of the century, I don’t know what is! …As far as I’m concerned you can grease up that Yule Log of yours and shove it up your shithole!...You’ll rue the day you thought you could pull this shit on me, you toothless old whore! I promise you will regret the day you were fucking born!” He slammed the phone receiver down, then picked it back up and screamed into it at the top of his lungs, then slammed it down into its cradle again and again, until finally, breathing hard, he looked up at Charlie and Pete. “Sorry,” he continued, “that was my mom. She wants me to pick up my kids tonight instead of tomorrow.”
Portraits of moral corruption don’t come any cleaner and dirtier than that. If there’s a character with a redeeming feature, I must have missed it. Though I suppose a couple minor incidents — a man asking if Charlie’s all right after he slips on some ice or an ex-roommate of one of Charlie’s old girlfriends — could count as two drops of the milk of human kindness amidst all the darkness and filth. Just barely.
Often books with despicable protagonists are hard to get through. Your natural inclination to sympathize with and like the main character gets constantly sidelined. Here, you don’t technically “like” Charlie Arglist — you just dislike everyone else so much more that you do find yourself rooting for his success. He’s not a bad guy per se, even if he does, drunkenly, snort a couple lines of cocaine with his brother-in-law prior to dropping in to the Christmas celebration of his ex-wife’s family. He justifies this to himself by thinking he should see his kids one last time before he leaves town and by not wanting to slur in front of his them.
So you see, he’s considerate in his debauchery. He even goes so far as to waive stage-fees for strippers screwed over by Christmas Eve’s slow turnout. Occasionally you might worry that Charlie’s softer side is going to get him killed, but combinations of dumb luck and unimaginably moronic bravado carry him through mostly. When he breaks into a friend’s home around 4am Christmas morning, the resulting scenario is partly the Grinch confronting Cindy Lou Who and partly slapstick of a nicely broad physical kind.
Exactly what Charlie is up to isn’t entirely clear until The Ice Harvest has made it to past the halfway mark, but public and private corruption play major roles, naturally. While he clearly needs to get out of town at some point in the relatively immediate future, Charlie dawdles, and, in the process, manages to burn every bridge, to make a series of bad judgments and to nearly give away all his hole cards before his ticket is solid and his cash is in hand. As the speed of the double-crossing begins to heat up, Charlie loses more and more safe havens and resources.
In that last respect, the book could almost present itself as a kind of allegorical deconstruction of a man, peeling away each successive layer of social and psychological wrapping until he’s left with only his own unadorned selfishness and ego. Phillips likely isn’t going that far, but to watch Charlie Arglist move ever further down, down, down is in itself a thing of black and amusing beauty. The conclusion of this comedy of disaster makes everything spectacularly worthwhile.