9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
What happens when everything you believe about yourself and your place in the world is overturned in one act of violence? Can the code one lives by still be trusted? Can faith provide protection? Is there a trustworthy `life narrative?'
Paul, could be `any man'; kind, affectionate, careful of others, a craftsman who makes beautiful objects out of wood, and in love with Kate. Paul's sense of himself has been developed through the vicissitudes of his life; he has developed self-knowledge and a code for governing his life. He has found fulfillment in as a carpenter, in his relationship with Kate and her daughter and in his place in a small town. One day, Paul stops at a roadside park to spend a few minutes alone. He sees a man abusing his dog; when Paul asks the man to stop, the man taunts Paul and continues to beat the dog. Paul attempts to intervene to save the dog from further pain. In the rage which rises up at the man's abuse, Paul overreaches and kills the man. Paul experiences a primal rage well beyond what he would have ever believed possible. It's clear the death is an accident, but Paul must somehow come to terms with the guilt and the consequences of his action. Unwilling to abandon the dog, Paul leaves the body, but takes the dog home.
Paul's lover, Kate, has overcome a history of alcoholism and, in her new sobriety, has had a mystical experience of God. As a result of her newly discovered spirituality, Kate writes an inspirational book and gives talks to groups about her spiritual experiences. Kate speaks from her heart; people are attracted to her message. The love between Paul and Kate is tender, accepting of differences, passionate; even idyllic. They are at peace in their lives. They have come to trust the predictable narratives of their lives.
Paul eventually tells Kate about the murder. She wants them to marry. Paul can't make this commitment given the uncertainty of his future. Paul begins to think of himself as a monster. "Buried beneath all the things he used to think of as his true and essential nature, his nonconfrontational personality, his live and let live character, beneath the steadily accrued rules of self-government, the limits of what he will do and not do, beneath everything familiar and everything assumed, beneath his style and beneath his ideals, beneath it all he may be a beast."
Paul's friend knows Paul is troubled but doesn't know the reason; he describes Paul as a man of honor. "You're one of the good guys, Paul. God loves you. Whatever you did." The reader knows this is true; Paul is a man of honor, a good guy.
Paul tries to assuage his guilt by doing good for people in the town. Kate encourages Paul to trust God. Paul tells her he wishes he had a father who could help him. "A heavenly father. A father to talk to. A father who sees me. Someone to look up to."
The bedrock of their lives begins to erode. Kate's daughter begins to have psychotic episodes. Paul pulls away from Kate. During a radio broadcast, Kate recalls her experience of being `entered, filled, radiantly occupied' with Jesus - "an unmistakable felt presence," and then realizes that the feelings are gone. Kate begins to doubt the certainty of her faith: "I once could see and now am blind."
Paul's role in the murder is not known to the police. The identity of the dead man is uncertain as he had changed his name several times running away from a person who might kill him for unpaid gambling debts. He stole the dog from his girlfriend. The book is set in the shadow of possible doom from Y2K. If some catastrophe happens, Paul and Kate consider that perhaps the slate will be wiped clean for everyone. The reader knows that Y2K will not provide an easy answer for Paul and Kate. The question remains unresolved; what to do about Paul's guilt? This is the central question of the story. At some level, Paul doesn't deserve to be imprisoned for murder. But without some resolution, Paul can't move forward in his life. Whether there are ever legal consequences for Paul's action, the guilt he experiences needs to be expiated.
The beginning of discovery occurs when Kate tapes a television program and the dog that Paul adopted wanders onto the set. The woman from whom the dog had been stolen, sees the dog and locates Paul and Kate.
Symbolic of the uncertainty that has engulfed their lives, the story ends without a resolution. Kate's daughter, who has begun experiencing delusional thinking, sees the lights of a police car reflected in a mirror in the house. She describes fairy lights. The reader knows the police have enough information to question Paul about how he came to bring the dog to his home, but what Paul will do, whether he tells the truth, whether he will be prosecuted, whether the court will see him as a man of honor, what consequences will eventually allow Paul to move on with his life, are unknown.
Guilt in need of expiation is a provocative theme in literature. What makes this story worth reading? The depth of honesty and innocence in Paul and Kate's lives, the fulfillment embodied in their relationship, the unsettling questions about what happens when a person's life moves into existential uncertainty - where nothing one has taken for granted can provide security. The author's tenderness for his characters and the gentle prose style. All contribute to making this book satisfying to read.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I feel as if Scott Spencer and I have grown up together (we're the same age). I was a huge fan of his 1979 breakout novel, ENDLESS LOVE (made into a shockingly bad movie starring Brooke Shields). A critical and commercial success, this story of obsessive youthful passion seemed tragically, thrillingly romantic, nothing like my own rather ordinary life but somehow relevant to my darker secret impulses. Spencer made emotional extremes seem plausible.
The same might be said of MAN IN THE WOODS, his latest book, only for a more mature generation dealing with debts, kids, addictions and work. Here he designs a scene of primal violence that throws an honorable man into moral crisis. (SPOILER ALERT: It's impossible to review this book usefully without giving some stuff away.) Since the murder occurs early on --- when the protagonist sees a stranger in the woods beating a dog, he loses his temper and kills him --- its aftermath is what drives the suspenseful plot: how the crime affects his intimate relationships, his sense of self, his slant on the world...and, of course, whether he will get caught.
The titular "man in the woods" could be either Will Claff, the victim, or Paul Phillips, the killer --- two guys who didn't get a great start in life and who tend to drift, picking up jobs and women along the way (Will stole the dog from his latest girlfriend as a vengeful gesture when it turned out she had another man). But whereas Will is a compulsive gambler fleeing violence-prone collection agents, Paul, through luck or talent or both, has wound up in a privileged and happy place --- until the fateful encounter.
Paul, a high-end woodworker in the affluent, arty (fictional) town of Leyden, New York, is the very model of an American individualist: handsome, adventurous, taciturn (in another era he would have been played by Gary Cooper) --- and rather aimless, too, until he meets Kate Ellis and moves in with her and her eight-year-old daughter, Ruby (from a previous Spencer novel, A SHIP MADE OF PAPER). Kate is a recovered alcoholic and spiritual celebrity whose book, Prays Well With Others, has been a runaway hit ("[H]er kind of Christianity...includes a fair amount of swearing and swagger, left-of-center politics, and all the sex your average heathen would enjoy"). Earthy, articulate and likable, she has a rough-and-ready faith but doesn't share Paul's moral absolutism. He is the sort of man who finds an upholstered headboard lacking in integrity ("Simplicity, durability, and reality are what please Paul, and all of these can be expressed by not hiding the materials out of which objects are made"). In concealing the murder, he experiences his entire life as a lie.
Paul and Kate are both trying to make sense of the world, to determine whether it is heartless and random, or rich with purpose (Kate's "message of hope" to her fans is that life does make sense). This is Spencer's overarching theme; he even sets the novel on the eve of the millennium, with all the attendant fears of computer anarchy, to emphasize our craving for stability and uneasy sense of underlying threat. The fuss about Y2K, Kate observes, is "a desperate attempt to find some meaning, a predictable narrative."
Detective Jerry Caltagirone, the cop who investigates the murder, is also on a quest for meaning. This obese, unglamorous man of the people (his grammar is careless; he says the "F" word a lot) is a foil for the dazzling, magazine-ready couple at the center of MAN IN THE WOODS. He sees his profession as "holy housekeeping --- he straightens out the world's mess, he brings the world slowly back to order even as it totters on the edge of chaos...." Jerry puts his mission very simply: "I want to catch the people who do what's not okay."
The book is beautifully written and brilliantly plotted --- the last 10 pages or so are absolute killers. But I think the author is more interested in the puzzle he has set up than in his characters. They tend to be types, albeit attractive and well crafted: the carpenter and the lady (very D.H. Lawrence); the easy-to-underestimate, sloppy-looking detective (Lieutenant Columbo, anyone?); the seedy, unpleasant victim. What seems to fascinate Spencer, like Ian McEwan, is how moral conundrums work upon an individual: "I like novelists who create multidimensional characters and then put them in difficult or even extreme situations so we can see how they cope or succumb," he has said.
Other novelists talk about their characters guiding them, dictating the action. This, of course, is a conceit --- the writer is the creator in either case --- but it is a distinction that has consequences for the book. The flaw of MAN IN THE WOODS, to my mind, is that Big Ideas are in charge; the people and events never acquire an apparent independence and inevitability of their own. It remains a sort of fable, an (im)morality tale.
Spencer does strike an authentic and moving note with the brown shepherd mix that Paul saves from Will and takes home. Shep, as he calls him, passes confusingly through different owners in the course of the novel. Snatched from a loving mistress, he continues to expect food and affection for a while and, heartbreakingly, gets smacked or ignored instead. He adapts to Will, as dogs do, but he worships Paul: "This dog, this seventy-five pounds of consciousness, is the only part of the universe, except for the trees and the sky, that has seen what Paul can do when fury and instinct take the place of thought, and yet this dog seems to have bestowed his fealty upon him, totally and unshakably."
Shep, the sole witness to the murder, is also the book's most innocent and believable character. But is saving him from cruel usage worth a man's life? Can anybody be saved from sin or misery or accident or whatever the universe --- mindful or absurd --- has in store? These are important, disturbing questions, but they lead the story too visibly for my taste. Although MAN IN THE WOODS is so intelligently built that it is never less than a pleasure to read, for me it never quite comes alive.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman