One thing’s for sure: This tale of a halfhearted embezzler struggling to escape from town (Wichita, Kansas) with his ill-gotten gains is not your average Christmas Eve story.
Charlie Arglist is a man of many talents. He used to practice law. He can still duck a speeding ticket without half trying. He has an eye for the ladies, and for strippers who don’t pretend to be ladies. And he runs the odd errand for Vic Cavanaugh, who’s been cooking the books on the operations he shares with Bill Gerard. Now that snow is blanketing the countryside, and joints like Tease-O-Rama and the Sweet Cage are empty except for customers scurrying home from Midnight Mass, Charlie plans to rendezvous with Vic and take off—just as soon as he’s made his last rounds of his old haunts, doling out holiday tips to Dusti, Francie, and Cupcake, leaving an indiscreet photo as an unsought Christmas gift to Sweet Cage manager Renata, and taking one last peek at the children who have no idea he’s leaving. Gradually, though, Charlie’s plans start to unravel. His brother-in-law ruins his getaway car. Vic isn’t waiting for Charlie at his house. Enforcers are on his trail. The weather is getting worse and worse. And that’s all before people start killing each other, with Charlie, sleepwalking through his abortive escape plans, watching numbly as the corpses pile up around him. First-timer Phillips, batting Charlie like a pinball from one flipper to the next and back again, commands a gorgeous array of tones from ribald comedy to sad-sack pathos to breathtakingly abrupt brutality, producing the shaggiest caper you’ve ever read.
In showing what it’s really like on a cold night when God and Santa Claus are both watching, Phillips provides the perfect corrective to all those treacly seasonal fables that get left under Christmas trees by the gross.