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