Monday, December 17, 2012

The Adjustment

Everyone has a writer about whom they say, “No one else writes like this.” Excepting the times the phrase is used as a meaningless platitude (which is too often), this means the author in question has gotten off the main trail and is finding his or her own way and no one is likely to follow because it’s scary down there. No light, no handholds, forks and switchbacks that can get you lost in a heartbeat, never to be heard from again. Sheer rock wall to your left, a thousand-foot drop on your right, and the path is a foot-and-a half wide. Then there’s the bridge across the Gorge of Eternal Peril, where if you fail to give the right answers, your bones will join the others strewn about, the careers of writers who lacked the courage of, and confidence in, their convictions. They should have turned back a long time ago.

James Ellroy’s name comes up a lot in such discussions, with good reason. My personal favorite is Scott Phillips.

In The Adjustment, Phillips builds his story around a thoroughly unlikeable character (Wayne Ogden). Ogden is a true sociopath, a small-town version of Warren Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example.” Wayne’s greedy and he’s angry and he doesn’t care who he crosses. He likes to have a good time, and he doesn’t care who gets hurt. Really. Times two.

It’s not that Ogden is amoral. He knows what the right thing to do is most of the time, and is willing to do it, so long as it doesn’t interfere with what he wants or feels like doing at the time. He puts up with his pregnant wife’s abysmal cooking because he feels bad when he hurt her feelings one time, then goes out a sleeps with pretty much whoever will have him. He’s a strong advocate on condoms, though it’s primarily because the clap will keep him from getting laid as often as he’d like. This is 1946, so AIDS is not an issue for Wayne. Pregnancy is an issue, but only for his partners.

That’s an unappealing picture, and Phillips does nothing to soften Ogden’s aura. Writing in the first person, no apologies are made for Ogden’s actions or attitudes. He is what he is and you can take him or leave him. Ogden’s okay either way, and he’s too busy to talk you into anything. It’s the matter-of-factness that makes the book so readable, that and Phillips’s wit, which is considerable. By “wit,” I don’t mean what passes for wit in popular culture today, Judd Apatow least common denominator cleverness (which, admittedly, can be quite funny), but the dryness present in Thurber or Robert Benchley. Not that either Thurber or Benchley would touch a character like Wayne Ogden with a cattle prod. You’ll read the description of an unsavory, heavy R-rated action through Ogden’s eyes and find a smile growing at the same time your conscience is stripping off its clothes, looking for a place to burn them.

The Adjustment is not for everyone. (Including, I believe, Phillip’s agent at the time.) You may find yourself smiling at things that are only funny from Ogden’s perspective. The writing will bring the smile, but any self-aware reader will be unable to escape what an unsavory narrator he is. If you enjoy atypical novels written with understated panache and don’t mind spending time with a main character who will screw your wife and piss in your drink while you’re in the bathroom, you really ought to check it out.

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