Book: The Ice Harvest

Cover image

The Ice Harvest

Author: Scott Phillips
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Loaded guns, ladies of the night, broken neon, broken dreams. Here is a world that is immediately recognizable—through a shot glass at three A.M. This is life with rough edges, in a novel that gives you the straight goods—point blank— one cold, snowbound Christmas Eve in Kansas. One single night, defined in shadings of black and white, when everything changes…

For most, the city is closing up. For a few outsiders, this night, Christmas Eve 1979, is just beginning. Charlie Arglist is a lawyer saying goodbye to Wichita by revisiting the landscape of his used up life: the cold stare of his angry ex-wife, the empty strip clubs and bars where loneliness turns a profit, the frozen glare of ex-lovers and cops long snuggled in his deep pockets. Club owner Renata, an elegant dish in a smoky dive, dreams of financial prosperity and holds a single frame of a stolen film that could help her achieve them. And there’s Vic. He’s got a reputation, a bad temper, and a secret worth half a million dollars. Not to mention a knack for bringing people together…for the last time. Before the night is over, the decisions they face and the choices they make will irrevocably alter the course of their lives—if they can live long enough to see Christmas Day sunrise.


For all that it involves organized crime, naked women, grumpy bouncers, a serious snowstorm, and a hero with a profound drinking pattern, The Ice Harvest is a quiet little book—noir-ish, certainly, but never to excess. As the novel traces Charlie Arglist’s trail around his small Kansas hometown on Christmas Eve, 1979, the lawyer’s literal footprints are clear enough, given the whopper of a blizzard that’s descended, but his metaphorical path is far less obvious. He’s killing time before leaving town, but where is he going? And why?

Scott Phillips’ sketch of a crooked lawyer on the lam is amusingly ironic: though there’s violence aplenty in the novel—including a morbidly comic finger-breaking scene starring Spencer, a philosophical bouncer at the Sweet Cage, one of the strip clubs Charlie oversees for Bill Gerard—this is Waiting for Godot rather than Goodfellas. Phillips masterfully sets up the reader’s expectations for action and adventure, dropping cryptic hints about Charlie’s past, present, and future, then gleefully keeps Charlie in a holding pattern, circling from one strip club to another, from bars to massage parlors to his former in-laws’ house.

But when the world isn’t scripted by Beckett, all waiting games must come to an end. Charlie’s gamble—it would be cheating to tell you more than that it involves a little cocaine, a beautiful woman of indeterminate origin, a Christmas package full of cash, and an embarrassing photograph—pays off, and he heads out of town. How far does he get? Well, that’s another story—and another opportunity for Phillips to show off the mordant humor that may brand him as the Cohen brothers’ literary heir apparent. In his hands, Kansas doesn’t seem far at all from Fargo. —Kelly Flynn

Barnes and Noble

The setting may be seedy, but in The Ice Harvest, the debut novel from Scott Phillips, the writing is top-notch all the way through.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1979, but Charlie Arglist lives in a world where Christmas, family, and presents all take a back seat to the schemes of the people who inhabit the underbelly of Wichita, Kansas. Tonight, however, if everything goes according to plan, Charlie’s getting out of Wichita a rich man.

Charlie is an attorney, but he’s the kind of lawyer who spends much less time in the courtroom than he does paying off cops and holding compromising photos of politicians over their heads. His business associates own strip clubs, and his friends, if you can call them that, are the people he knows from the bars he frequents. When he bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, who is so drunk that he needs a ride home to the Christmas celebration being given by Charlie’s former parents-in-law, Charlie realizes he can’t even remember the last time he saw his kids and wonders if he should even bother saying good-bye to them before he skips town.

As Charlie moves through Wichita, trying to kill time before 2am, when he meets with Vic to finalize their quick getaway, planned for Christmas morning, it becomes clear that as vile as Charlie is, he’s probably the most decent person he knows. Everybody he knows will gladly lie, cheat, and steal to get anything, preying on any weakness to take full advantage of people. Charlie is no saint, but his planned ticket out of town doesn’t include hurting innocent people or murder. At least, that’s not what he has planned. But as events spin out of his control, Charlie has to do whatever it takes to stay alive until Christmas morning.

It is a testament to Scott Phillips’s writing and humorous irony that he has created a reprehensible protagonist you can’t help but root for. The other characters who orbit Charlie range from worse to worst and definitely deserve whatever they get, but Phillips makes it fun to watch these people in action—even if their actions are pretty odious. Phillips’s easy style makes The Ice Harvest a quick and enjoyable read, but there are enough plot twists that the reader never has the upper hand. This sleazy, sexy novel is like a decadent sin—the worse these characters behave, the more fun it is.—Jennifer Jarett

Related Works

Album:The Ice Harvest: Music from and Inspired by the Film

The Ice Harvest: Music from and Inspired by the Film

David Kitay

Soundtrack album to the holiday thriller starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton & Randy Quaid.

Album features music from and inspired by the film including Holiday Songs from Louis XIV, Funeral For A Friend, Hidden In Plainview, The Chipmonks plus tracks from Eels, Peter Wolf, and more!

Film:Ice Harvest

Ice Harvest

Harold Ramis

Holiday movies don’t get much darker, or more darkly humorous, than The Ice Harvest, an offbeat comedy that defies expectations. The involvement of director Harold Ramis might lead some to expect a straight-up comedy like Groundhog Day or Analyze This, but despite Ramis’s fine and atypically subdued work here, it’s the writers (Robert Benton and Richard Russo) who put a stronger stamp on their adaptation of the novel by Scott Phillips. Benton and Russo previously collaborated on Nobody’s Fool and Twilight (with Benton also…

Views: 890 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.019 sec