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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.

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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

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Redbone by Matt Phillips

Matt PhillipsIn Matt Phillips’ Redbone, Calvin G. Redbone washes cars down at the used car lot. His mornings start with coffee and maybe a splash of bourbon and a walk into work. Ten years, this has been Calvin’s life for ten years as he earns a little money for drinks at Speakeasy and spending some time with his good friend Mister which usually involved more drinking.

Calvin walked along the sidewalk for three miles through the town he called home his entire life. It wasn’t big, but it wasn’t small either. It was right in the middle, a damn mediocre place of mediocre people.

It wasn’t that Calvin thought himself better than anyone else, he knew he wasn’t, he was with his people, a product of his environment. His walks to and from work had him bear witness to the changes in his town, changes that some called progress and others, well, others could just shake their heads as progress moved along and didn’t give a damn. Whether it was a strip mall,  “a flat-looking, beige set of buildings that contained a donut shop, a liquor store, a laundromat, an eerily successful Thai food restaurant and the office of Roscoe Childress, attorney-at-law” or out-of-business drive-in stuck between the progress of TJ Maxx and Walmart serving as “a reminder of another America – a reminder to Calvin about the years he spent here, in town, living careless and drunk and lost as every other small town kid.”

There is much that is right with Matt Phillips’ Redbone, but there were a few things that just seemed a bit askew: a found letter that Calvin reads but we don’t learn its contents for several chapters and Calvin always referring to a lawyer as “fucking divorce attorney prick”. Now, I don’t have a problem per se with that, I mean the guy was a fucking divorce attorney prick, but I wanted to know what this hatred was about and we didn’t find out till much later in the book. Small issues.

Like many Americans, Calvin exists from one day to another, his only goal is not to get any poorer than he already is. But as Redbone opens that all changes as Calvin’s life is not so much turned upside down, it is utterly vanquished. In Phillips’s story, Calvin turns against the complacency and boredom that has plagued him and embraces an anger fueled by alcohol and misery. I might have had a few problems with the book, but Phillips description of an America ravaged by capitalism and box stores is depressingly accurate and makes Redbone well-worth your time. Plus it’s a buck-fucking-fifty and probably cheaper than the beer your swilling right now, so go buy it.

Phillips’ new book, Accidental Outlaws, coming out in a few days on All Due Respect Books. While you’re buying Redbone, buy this one too.

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Bad Luck City by Matt Phillips

bad-luck-city-by-matt-phillipsMatt Phillips’ Bad Luck City (Near to the Knuckle) opens weirdly, even the narrator, a newspaper reporter, says so, “Editors will tell you that most great stories start with a major conflict, some kind of tension unresolved. I’d agree with that, but sometimes there’s a story that’s simmering, a narrative not quite ready to boil. That’s how I felt about my life. It kept wanting to start, kept feeling like it might be starting, but in the end I was 36–years–old and my story never got going.”

But after that Sim Palmer’s life kicks off in a run-down airport bar. A stranger meets up with Palmer to give him a tip on a story which involves human trafficking and the search for a young woman. Matt Phillips’ Bad Luck City is an open vein of noir: Palmer’s apartment is bathed in red neon light, lunches are meant to be drunk not eaten, and the narrator tries to tread water in a sea of hotel moguls, gangsters and the Vegas streets that tourists fear to tread.

“This is a Colt Detective Special, a .38 snubnosed belly gun,” he said. “It’ll shoot a man’s belly out his lower back, Sim. And one day, when I die, this gun’s gonna be yours.”

“I can shoot people?”

My dad shook his head. “You only shoot people if they do you wrong, if they deserve it. It’s better to come at life with a strategy. You watch the moves and then you make your own—like on the chess board. You remember how I taught you that game, the one where all the pieces move in different directions?”

I nodded.

“See, Sim,” my dad said, “shooting a man is like knocking over his king before the game is over. It’s only right under certain circumstances.”

“Like right now?”

He nodded. “Like right now,” he said.

Palmer tears away at dark canvas surrounding him, trying to grasp at some sort of light that he can apply some sense too. But this is noir and Palmer is bound to fail. Matt Phillips’ Bad Luck City is a book that any crime writer would have wanted to write and any crime fiction fan needs to read.

In a couple of weeks, Matt Phillips’ Accidental Outlaws (All Due Respect Books) will be released. Bad Luck City is now the second Phillips book I’ve read, Three Kinds of Fool (All Due Respect Books) was the first. One more to go and that is Redbone (Number Thirteen Press) which Eryk Pruitt said, “In Redbone, Matt Phillips speaks fluently the language of the dispossessed … His whiskey-soaked prose can at times be as slick as a man slinging snake-oil, and other times as brutal as a baseball bat to the back of the head.” I can’t wait.

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Three Kinds of Fool by Matt Phillips

It doesn’t take long in Matt PhillipsThree Kinds of Fool (All Due Respect Books), for regret to set in on the main character, it takes two paragraphs.

Jess Forsyth took the same freeway exit as Mikey Watt— it was east of the city— and powered his black Nissan mini-truck past a smattering of half-assed mobile homes flanked by dirt lots and rusted swing sets. Up ahead, Mikey’s taillights flashed red at a four-way stop and Jess slowed for a moment, watched Mikey through the yellow cab’s rear window as he looked both ways and punched the gas.

Jess said to himself, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Three Kinds of Fool is the story of an ex-con who has gotten his shit together by leading a somewhat normal life of cleaning pools and surfing. But Jess doesn’t always make the best decisions and it doesn’t help matters much that he likes drinking in dive bars frequented by old criminal associates. Jess meets up with Mikey and they head out to a beach house ostensibly for an introduction to a man who has a job for them to do, a job that would entail a little bit of trouble. The reader finds out quickly that Jess has gotten himself neck deep into some serious shit.

Phillips’novel is part history, how Jess became a convict and his friendship with the store owner he held up, how Jess attempts to dig himself out of the mess Watt go him into, and  will Jess ever be able to get back to his newly established boring life. I quite enjoyed Three Times of Fool.