Frontier Guignol in post–Civil War Kansas and California of the 1870s and ’80s.
Unflappable Bill Ogden objects more to the quality of his wife Ninna’s extramarital affairs than to their quantity. After all, he and Ninna, for all practical purposes, live apart, she outside of Cottonwood on their farm with surly son Clyde and he in town above his saloon. Bill’s stated reason is that he’s taking care of business, which includes not only the saloon but also a nascent career as a photographer; in reality, he dallies as often as his wife, and his droll first-person narrative combines amorality with a genuine, if laid-back, joie de vivre. He gleefully shoots holes through the bowler of Ninna’s foppish latest, a pots-and-pans salesman named A.J. Harticourt, who later turns up mysteriously dead. Indeed, Cottonwood is a real Wild West town, but not in the way one might expect. Its colorful population includes a remarkably high number of hedonists and sociopaths, and there are a similarly large number of disappearances and random corpses. Foremost among the former is Katie Bender, who lives with her German-born mother and advertises herself as a mystic and miracle healer. At length, Bill learns that Katie and mom are serial killers with an impressive number of victims. When flashy industrialist Marc Leval comes from Chicago with beautiful wife Maggie and a plan to turn Cottonwood into a railroad boomtown, Bill quickly becomes Marc’s partner and Maggie’s lover. Marc’s proposal proves unpopular, however, as townspeople threaten violence and more. After an unexpected shooting leads to a makeshift posse and Bill’s drift away from corrupt Cottonwood, he heads for San Francisco, where his photographic business thrives for more than a decade. On his return to Kansas, he finds Cottonwood gripped by a dramatic murder trial.
The blazingly original Phillips (The Walkway, 2002, etc.) writes with deadpan humor and incisive irony. The story is shaggy, but its unique slant on the Old West is a major achievement.