Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Hairy Canopy: Thomas Wickersham on Hop Alley and Scott Phillips

My first exposure to Scott Phillips was an unwitting one. I took my high school girlfriend to see the movie adaptation of Phillips’s novel The Ice Harvest. It has been fifteen years since that night, but I still remember the delight I felt in that theater as each gleefully amoral twist of strip club sleaze unfolded, all while I was working up the nerve to hold my girlfriend’s hand.

When I was asked a month ago to write something about Scott Phillips’s 2014 novel Hop Alley, high school kids could still go to the movies. Now the world feels scarier. My current girlfriend and I only leave our apartments to shop for groceries and see each other. We can’t go out to restaurants or the movies. But we read to each other: The Decameron, Irish Ghost Stories, The Wind in the Willows, Krazy Kat comic strips, and Hop Alley.

Like all of Scott Phillips’s books, Hop Alley is odd. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of Bill Ogden, a fellow of great education and lesser morals who operates a photography studio in 1870s Denver, Colorado. Hop Alley is not a sequel, nor a prequel, but a segment of Bill Ogden’s life, bookended on either side by Cottonwood, the novel in which Phillips introduced the character 10 years prior. There is plenty of action to be found in Hop Alley including fornication, multiple homicides, a riot, and a jailbreak. But none of these attractions are why one should read the book.

Scott Phillips’s books shouldn’t be read for their plots, but for the sensibilities of their author. Phillips makes misery feel jaunty. He makes corruption seem benign. His protagonists do dreadful deeds yet somehow never cross the line into cartoon villainy. His books are exceptionally readable, yet difficult to classify They are books that are as reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio as they are of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Scott Phillips is a masterful perversion of Americana.

I told my girlfriend that the dirty parts of Hop Alley were particularly raunchy. I failed to find them on my initial scan, so I started reading the book to her from the beginning. She was enraptured by the storytelling long before I had the chance to scandalize her with the post-coital passage I was searching for,

…rolling slightly toward me to afford a better view of her lovely sex, its labia dark and glistening, a microscopically thin strand of semen suspended delicately across the hair canopy just above it.

This morning my girlfriend was half-asleep as I started reading to her from The Wind in the Willows. There is a description of a river, the river, with its “silvery shoulder and foamy tumble of a weir” that makes joining Rat and Mole on their picnic sound like paradise. When I finished the passage she turned to me and said, “Until you said ‘Mole’ I thought you were reading from Hop Alley.”

I want Scott Phillips to keep writing his wonderfully odd books. I want to read those books sitting by that river whose beauty makes Mole cry “Oh my!” I want my girlfriend to keep rolling slightly toward me in the mornings. I want to be able to take her to the movies again.

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

Subterranean Books (they'll have signed editions)

Barnes & Noble

Thomas Wickersham is the manager of The Mysterious Bookshop, the oldest and largest mystery specialty bookstore in the world, located in New York City. He can be found on Twitter at @TomWickersham.

1 comment:

Les Edgerton said...

Just finished Scott's new novel and what a ride! He has a vision that is indeed, singular. I highly recommend glommimg onto this one and taking a ride with a brilliant talent.