Books

The sleazy, seamy side of Wichita

"The Adjustment" by Scott Phillips (Counterpoint, 217 pages, $25)

Wayne Ogden is back from the war, back to his job at an aircraft company, back to his wife. And he's bored.

He's not a war hero — far from it. Instead of fighting Nazis, he used his position as a quartermaster to spend the war pimping and black marketeering, managing to smuggle home a significant sum of cash, which he's stashed away for a rainy day.

Now at Collins Aircraft, where he is nominally in charge of public relations and marketing, Ogden's main job is keeping an eye on and, frequently, cleaning up after his boss, a man of short temper and large appetites. This means spending long nights in speakeasies and procuring prostitutes for hotel liaisons — both for his boss and himself.

Clever and resourceful, but also petty and vengeful, Ogden knows when to finesse and when to use force, and does plenty of both.

Not long after his return to Wichita, Ogden starts receiving threatening letters — badly written and improperly punctuated, but clearly threatening — obliquely referring to Ogden's actions as a pimp in Rome. Not so much worried as amused at first, then later a bit wary, Ogden devotes more of his energy to getting illicit prescriptions for his boss, then getting his opiate-addicted boss off the drugs, then scheming to make sure the board members of the aircraft company don't oust the old man from leadership. Meanwhile, he's setting up a supply of pornography for an Army buddy stationed in Japan, having a fling with a co-worker and a woman in Kansas City, and seriously meddling in the personal lives of other co-workers.

"The Adjustment" is gritty and dark, full of sex, prostitution, bad language, drinking, drug abuse, blackmail, fighting and even murder. None of the main characters are heroic, or tragic, or even decent people. Ogden is not a romanticized Wild West outlaw, he's someone you don't want to mess with — whether you realize it or not.

The story is unpredictable and fast-paced, and it keeps readers guessing as to whether Ogden is facing a serious threat from the letter-writer or whether it's simply a nuisance; what's going to happen with his boss, his wife and his other entanglements; and how it's all going to end.

Wichitans will appreciate the level of detail in the book, and recognize familiar locations.

Phillips' writing is vivid and smart, and he takes an incisive look at the readjustment of returning veterans to life after wartime, as well as the adjustment the men and women whose lives changed at home have to make as the soldiers return.

Plus, it's fun to see Wichita captured in such a sordid light, and then see Ogden blithely dismiss that picture in a memory of his cousins: "they all went to the picture shows and they pictured Wichita as the very heart of urban sin and decadence. It struck me now that if Wichita really was that way I'd be happy as a clam there."

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