A Read of Phillips’ The Underbelly

The Underbelly by Gary Phillips (novel, 152 pages, PM Press)

Part comic noir, part off-the-cuff socio-economic commentary, this short novel by Gary Phillips presents a quick but engaging tour of the dirtier Los Angeles streets and some of the characters who prowl them. The book portrays the city with a hybrid gritty/stylized realism in a slightly skewed, almost out-of-time continuum that seems inspired by Phillips’ background as a graphic novelist.


The vehicle for the journey through the titular underbelly is Magrady, a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet who is struggling against the requisite demons from his past – including flashbacks to the war, substance abuse and guilt for having abandoned his family – and a sudden, more pressing problem. Someone is trying to set Magrady up for the murder of Savoirfaire, a street enforcer with whom Magrady had recently battled while preventing the thug from collecting on a dubious debt owed by one of the vet’s buddies.

The initial confrontation between Magrady and Savoirfaire sets the mood and tone for the book. It takes place in the middle of this anti-heartland: “smack in the middle of L.A.’s Skid Row” as Phillips describes it, which “[u]nlike the street’s more notorious incarnation in Manhattan…didn’t boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism”. “The bailout around here,” Phillips notes pulpishly, “was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.”

Magrady – dry for several months at this point and eager to continue his progress back into the world – sets out to track down the real killer with the tenacity of a Phillip Marlowe. And from here, Underbelly presents Magrady’s struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of society, his family and himself. This is standard stuff, but Phillips’ description of Magrady’s journey, with its simple, but dark, tone, is absorbing. His prose illustrates L.A.’s underground in crisp blacks and whites that are nestled in shades of gray as well. Some scenes could be straight out of a 1970s exploitation flick, but then the present suddenly intrudes in iPhones and Information Age allusions.

The book’s most poignant moment comes when Magrady, having pursued a lead far away from his home base and unable to afford a ride back into town, must spend the night outside, back in the real underbelly. He has to dig out “some greasy and musty clothing tatters” from a cardboard box in an alley and use them “the best he could like blankets” to sleep “under the Sixth Street Bridge with several others.” It’s a point at which he could easily be dragged back under.

But he rises again, dusts himself off and sets back to work, this recent descent only increasing his determination to climb out. And while a mystical flourish near the end of the book seems a tad tacked on, the redemption and resolution a bit rushed, and the character’s tenacity slightly problematic (Magrady’s interior monologues are pretty mundane for someone so conflicted and driven), the dark corners his path takes us into are enough to keep you turning the pages – especially if you like them pulpy – as much as the actual mystery.


Descend into it from: http://www.pmpress.org/content/index.php


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