Matt Phillips’ Accidental Outlaws is probably the best thing he has ever written. A year ago, I read Phillips’ Three Kinds of Fool and towards the end of 2017, I finished off his two other novellas: Bad Luck City and Redbone. All of which I liked, but this, this blows them all away.
Accidental Outlaws, published by All Due Respect Books, is a collection of novellas set in Redbone‘s universe, a place called The Mesa. It is here in The Mesa that Matt Phillips seems most comfortable, more than the Vegas of Bad Luck City or San Diego of Three Kinds of Fool. The Mesa, a land as well as a circumstance, is where Phillips ably draws his characters’ existence from. His people is a collection of hourly workers and ne’er-do-wells, a people whose future is not looked at in years, but rather in days, often times, only tomorrow.
Didn’t matter that the car dealerships thrived or that the census kept showing progress—this was a small town. And it always would be a small town. An outlaw stench hung everywhere alongside the dust; in the saloons, the diners, the tattoo parlors. That stench hung like air over The Mesa.
And the other stand that connects the novellas of Accidental Outlaws together is Packard. We first meet Packard as he robs a gas station/sandwich shop. Not only does he steal what little cash the gas station has, he also gets the kid behind the counter to make him a free meatball sub to-go. As the stories progress, we learn that Packard is more than an outlaw on a motorcycle, he is a man who has said, “Enough is enough” to the life most of us lead. The people of The Mesa derogatorily call him a “hippie” and Packard is indeed a hippie in his own way. When he sees an injustice perpetrated on others, he stops up to correct the situation even though the victims do not see or comprehend Packard’s odd but virtuous actions.
He’d lived in cities. For years, he’d lived in cities. And he’d held a job and commuted and gone to happy hour like a good little lemming, but Packard couldn’t keep up his act—he couldn’t play his part. Spiders crawled inside his heart. They wanted out and Packard couldn’t hold them inside for much longer. He’d quit his job. He’d smashed his life—a vanilla existence anyhow. Packard rode his motorcycle into the desert. He’d embraced outlaw, began to live it as a choice.
From the first novella, “Mesa Boys”, we begin to see the fragility of the poor working class start to fall apart. Like many of Accidental Outlaws, Jennie and Ronnie stay together more of happenstance and now Jennie’s pregnant. The story opens with Ronnie being suckered into stealing a car theft by his landlord and friend, Marl. Meanwhile, Jennie stops by her mom’s to tell her the news only to find her beaten to death. In the first few pages, Matt Phillips has suckered punched his two protagonists and we wonder not whether or not they will fall, but rather how far they will tumble.
This vein of the poor at war with themselves, each other, and unseen forces continues throughout the other two novellas. “The Feud” is a story if a simmering rage as unreasonable as potentially deadly. I did feel “Barn Burner” stuttered in the beginning but Phillips brought it all back into focus as Packard squares off against a local with revenge on his mind. Matt Phillips’ Accidental Outlaws is filled with great crime stories, but at its core, it is a working class tragedy.