Hop Alley by Scott Phillips, review by Todd Robins
If you were tasked with compiling a dossier on Bill Sadlaw, the protagonist/narrator of Scott Phillips’s new novel, Hop Alley, you might mention that while Sadlaw himself is not given to partaking of the 19th century buzz potion laudanum, he nevertheless won't sit and judge if a lady friend begs to differ about the merits of trying on the experience in the course of an otherwise uneventful evening. In fact, Sadlaw, who lives in the American West in the aftermath of the Civil War, can be called upon to deliver a bottle of the stuff—apparently in lieu of flowers—on arrival at his companion’s doorstep.
Or maybe you could put it like this: Whereas, historically, a venerable number of Americans have gone in for the Puritan work ethic and associated belief systems, Sadlaw favors leaving his countrymen to these pursuits while he spends the majority of his time in towns generously stocked with individuals who are not unfamiliar with the basic tenants of full-blown debauchery.
Oh, Sadlaw tried to farm at one point after the war, but his commentaries suggest that this lifestyle was not among his favorites. He had a reasonable run of good luck as the proprietor of a saloon, but things got complicated when he unintentionally ended up in the sack with another man’s bride.
Yet, he can always fall back on photography. If a customer approaches him with a request to determine if it’s possible to capture the ghostly presence of a particular deceased person on film, Sadlaw reaches into his bag of tricks to provide the image as requested, especially if indicators point to a client capable of anteing up with enough coin to temporarily upgrade the living conditions of the aforementioned bride. (She absconded with Sadlaw after things got complicated.)
It should be noted that although Sadlaw won’t go out of his way to look for trouble, you would nonetheless do well to avoid tracking into his personal space with an aura of menace, for he is not unwilling to display his firearm, making it clear that you might soon be in short supply of bodily parts long recognized by the medical community for being essential to the reproductive process. Truth to tell, Sadlaw’s resolve in these situations might have at least something to do with the fact that he has, once or twice, found it necessary to change names and move to other towns in other territories where denizens can reportedly be relied upon to keep an open mind about the pursuit of happiness.
Finally, to the extent that Sadlaw functions as the narrator, the file ought to contain a synopsis on his ability to fulfill that duty. More to the point: does Sadlaw have an engaging way of telling his story? First-person narrators are at their best when equipped with unconventional viewpoints, thereby delivering the perspective in an uninhibited fashion, with a generous dose of mirth. Sadlaw, then, who relaxes of an evening with The Last Days of Socrates, could not be better suited to the mantle of raconteur.