Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Steve Weddle on Cottonwood by Scott Phillips

A few decades back, I was in Kansas, researching the works of Luigi Pirandello and Eugène Ionesco in a cavernous bookstore I’d eventually be banned from. The bookstore, suitably dark and musty with a wonderful loft that hid cheap Penguin paperbacks, opened in 1988 just off Pittsburg’s main drag, Highway 69. My girlfriend (now wife) and I took poet Henry Taylor there when he visited the university and asked us to help his search for unusual dictionaries. At the time, my money was split among rent, books, and, for a reason that escapes me now, mail-order cigars. When the duplex I was renting got too cold one winter, the woman at the Salvation Army in town gave me busted electric blankets that no one else wanted. I nailed them up along each wall, like you would in a drafty castle that had fallen intro disrepair when your mad uncle died. The draftiest wall was floor to ceiling with books, shelved on planks and cinderblocks. Most of the books had come from the Pittsburg bookstore, Mostly Books.

The store had opened in 1988 by Roger and Jan O’Connor and, when it closed in 2009, held 50,000 used books. I spent a good deal of time in that store while I was in Kansas. So did Scott Phillips.

Ten years back, Scott and I chatted about the O’Connors and that store, as Roger O’Connor happened to have been the self-proclaimed leading expert on the Bloody Benders, the serial killers in Cottonwood, my favorite Scott Phillips book.

The novel, as realistic as any history and as absurd as any Pirandello, follows Bill Ogden from saloon to bed, from Kansas to California and back again. Ogden is a photographer and saloon-owner, a married rascal who enters into a boomtown business scheme with Marc Leval, then enters Marc’s wife, Maggie. Things don’t well, and the story moves to two decades into the future, in San Francisco, then back to Cottonwood.

And it is the historical aspect of the Benders that ground the book. The Benders were a family of four who lived and killed in rural Kansas shortly after the American Civil War. They would lure guests to their inn, seat them to dinner, then hammer-whack them in the temple, and toss them down a trap door. The beautiful brutality of the Bloody Benders here is Scott Phillips at his best.

What’s compelling about this book from the beginning is Bill Ogden’s dark, troubled, biting voice. His bed-hopping and his photography are wonderfully particular aspects used to build his character, hone his voice, and tell his story. Ogden is unforgettable. What holds the book together, though, is the historical truth underpinning the narrative, the bodies beneath the floorboard, the historical dark secret of a family inn outside a Kansas boomtown.

Scott Phillips weaves fact and fiction throughout this book, thanks in large part to his discussions with Roger O’Connor of Mostly Books. For that contribution to one of my favorite books, I forgive the O’Connors their banning me from their store.

That Left Turn at Albuquerque, the latest novel by Scott Phillips is available now. Grab a copy at your favorite local bookstore through Indie Bound or from

Subterranean Books (they'll have signed editions)

Barnes & Noble


Steve Weddle is the author of Country Hardball and the founding editor and publisher of Needle: a magazine of noir. He grew up on the border of Louisiana and Arkansas. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, and currently works for a newspaper group. He lives with his family in Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @steveweddle.

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