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Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips

At the end of last year, I finished reading Matt Phillips’s back catalog with “Redbone” and “Bad Luck City”. The reason being was that I had read “Three Kinds of Fools” in 2016 and I knew Phillips had a book coming out in December 2017 called “Accidental Outlaws” which I needed to get to. This should tell you that I’m either a glutton for punishment or I enjoy Phillips’s books. It’s the latter. So I was excited when I found out Phillips had a book come out in August 2018, “Know Me From Smoke” (Fahrenheit 13).

It took me a bit to get into this book as it did the alternating chapters between the two main characters thing, but the book didn’t dwell in that repetition for long. The two main characters of “Know Me From Smoke” are Stella Radney, a lounge singer with a bullet in her hip from a robbery gone bad that killed her husband some 20 years ago, and Royal Atkins, an ex-con just released from prison back home to San Diego. 

But the further I read into Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” and saw how good it was, the more I realized that the two books I had recently finished had put me in a reading funk. I blame George Pelecanos’s “The Man Who Came Uptown” for that. What I needed was a palate cleanser before I picked up “Know Me From Smoke”, but Phillips is a good enough writer that he pulled me through my reading distress to the malaise the gripped Stella and Royal. I love malaise in my reading.

Phillips sets us in modern-day San Diego, but it could have easily been unearthed from a 1940s manuscript, not because it’s littered with noirish metaphors and similes, rather Phillips creates a mood that drips with the shadows of meaningless and crime.

I don’t want to go deep into the story but one of the themes of the story is that of being caught in the cages of society. Royal comes early to this line of thinking.

Royal sat there on the bed, his feet tired from walking and his eyes adjust to the soft glow of evening light through the windows, the way it stacked up in some places and left shadows in others. Here I am, Royal thought, I went from one prison to another. One looks better than the other, but it’s still like I have chains around my ankles. And those steel bracelets around my wrists. 

He reclined into the bed and closed his eyes.

Stella, however, is in a cage of her own making. Though as tragic as it is that her husband was murdered, she let’s this one moment define her entire existence. The sorrow and pain feed her soul like alcohol and food replenish her body. And then there’s Phoenix, an ex-con living in the half-way house with Royal, who is creating his own cage of crimes to encircle Royal.

Matt Phillips’s “Know Me From Smoke” is Noir AF. I thought Phillips’s “Accidental Outlaws” was something, but “Know Me From Smoke” is something else. If you are looking for modern day noir, look no further than this book with its atmosphere of loneliness and constant struggle. I can’t guarantee that you’ll feel good after reading “Know Me From Smoke”, but I know you’ll feel good that you read it.

Buy: Amazon

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Accidental Outlaws by Matt Phillips

Imagine a town somewhere in the desert. Between this town and the hills are a people living in desperation from paycheck to paycheck and with future that may include tomorrow if they are lucky. Matt Phillips calls this land The Mesa in his new collection of novellas, Accidental Outlaws (All Due Respect Books), which by the way is the best thing he’s ever written.

Not only are the stories connected the land and its people, the continuous appearance of a drifter named Packard throughout helps bind them together.

Ronnie finished slicing the ham and put it into one of the low coolers, a backup for later. When he stood and looked back out the window he saw a Harley Davidson motorcycle coming down the highway like a banshee. It was only a moment until he heard the engine roar into the Chevron parking lot. The rider, with long hair and a white beard, wore a leather vest with a reaper on the back. Middle-aged guy, maybe early forties. Young enough that his white beard was a trip.

“Mesa Boys”, the first novella of Matt Phillips’ wonderful book, Packard robs a Chevron-gas-station-slash-Subway-sandwich-shop and leaves with only a few dollars and a “free” meatball sub. Ronnie, the sandwich maker, lives like everyone else in The Mesa where “an outlaw stench hung everywhere alongside the dust; in the saloons, the diners, the tattoo parlors. That stench hung like air over The Mesa.” Ronnie’s friend and landlord Marl has come up with a scheme for them to steal a restored Bronco from Ronnie’s uncle and then sell it for parts. Financially, shit wasn’t going well for Ronnie and he needed something more, something t

Like most of the characters in Accidental Outlaws, Matt Phillips understands that many are getting pushed down into a hole of crime, not so much to make ends meet, but just to give them that boost, that footing so that they may have a chance in succeeding. In “The Feud”, Rex and Lou hit golf balls into the desert and then towards their neighbor’s house who responds with gunshots.

Rex goes to work each day, working hard and hating his job just as hard.

Rex found himself dead-tired after work. Tired as a damn dog.

Each day it was the same: He got there at seven and helped unload any new deliveries. They used a forklift when they could, but the place was old and had some tight spaces. Sometimes that meant moving things by hand, one piece at a time. The guys Rex worked with, they laughed at him. Shit, he knew it wasn’t the hardest work—it wasn’t digging ditches or laying asphalt under the desert sun.

No, Rex had it easy.

But if this was easy, and if it was all he’d ever be—man, Rex wasn’t good with that.

Not a chance.

It is this working-class spirit that fuels the pages. Matt Phillips’ Accidental Outlaws is not so much crime fiction rather it is the story of men and women pushed by drugs and everyday life