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Man in the Woods: A Novel by [Spencer, Scott]
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“We don’t often encounter novels that combine shrewd plotting, strong characters and gorgeous writing, but Scott Spencer’s “Man in the Woods” does precisely that.” (Washington Post)

“Spencer, a deft explorer of obsessive love and violence, confronts the consequences of doing wrong for all the right reasons in his exquisite latest.” (Publishers Weekly (Starred Review))

“[A] compelling setup and stunning conclusion...The depth of the characters, the questions they ask and the challenge they confront stay with the reader long after the conclusion.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“Spencer, a master of piercing insight and letter-perfect prose, tantalizes to the last climactic sentence of this compelling exploration of the wages of guilt.” (Booklist (starred review))

“This is a book poised to take its place as an American classic.” (Huffington Post)

“Spencer has shown a powerful understanding of the price of passion. In this one, he explores the even more treacherous terrain of guilt, expiation, and longed-for salvation...” (O magazine)

“[Spencer] writes love stories with such beauty that you want to savor every surprising phrase, but his intense, intriguing plots propel you to race along the pages. He does it again in his new book, a complex novel... fresh, and compelling.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“This beautifully written novel is so much more than just a good read.” (USA Today)

“The novel is at its most compelling as it traces the evolution of Paul’s inner turmoil... the precision of Spencer’s eye for vibrant similes remains a pleasure throughout...” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“MAN IN THE WOODS reveals the talent and confidence of a master story teller at the top of his game....Scott Spencer holds the reader to his terrifying account every step of the way. A page turner from beginning to end.” (Rudy Wurlitzer)

“A smart, haunting thriller with bass reverb and a pounding heart....Spencer transforms an eight thousand dollar gambling debt and a dog with two names into an enthralling literary ride....Spencer is an American master.” (Jayne Anne Phillips, author of the National Book Award finalist LARK AND TERMITE)

“In this brilliant novel, Scott Spencer further expands his range to embrace our relations with animals—with the loyal pets that consent to share our domestic lives, and with the darker, more alarming beasts that lurk within even the most compassionate and conscious human beings.” (Francine Prose)

Product Description

“A smart, haunting thriller with bass reverb and a pounding heart.”
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of the National Book Award finalist Lark and Termite

Scott Spencer, the acclaimed author of Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper, reaffirms his storytelling mastery with Man in the Woods—a gripping psychological thriller about a carpenter at loose ends and the crime of passion that radically reorders his world. Rudy Wurlitzer lauds Man in the Woods as a stunning work that offers “heartbreaking insights into the dark frailties of human nature,” and which he calls, “a page turner from beginning to end.” And New York Times bestselling author Francine Prose hails its achievement, writing, “In this brilliant novel, Scott Spencer further expands his range.”

Product Details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 526 KB
  • Print Length: 324 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0061466557
  • Publisher: HarperCollins e-books; Reprint edition (Sept. 14 2010)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers CA
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003V1WVAM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #669,019 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9cb191e0) out of 5 stars 55 reviews
54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c76b408) out of 5 stars Is Civilization Merely a Façade? Sept. 14 2010
By Fairbanks Reader - Bonnie Brody - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods is a novel that chronicles the life of Paul Phillips, a man who has been on his own since he was sixteen years old. Paul is both a simple and a complex man - simple because he has relied on good luck and good looks to open many doors, and complicated because he is an artisan of deep convictions that he is unwilling to compromise. He is not a man to say very much but a lot goes on in his mind that does not come out in words. He creates beautiful furniture, crafts, and remodels with wood. Each type of wood speaks to him in its own way. He has never given a lot of thought to his life. Where he is and what he's doing have a way of simply falling into place. He has traveled around a lot, living in Alaska, South Dakota, Colorado and currently in rural New York State.

As the book opens, Paul is living with Kate Ellis, a character from Scott Spencer's previous book, A Ship Made of Paper. Kate has become quite famous recently for her book, `Prays Well With Others'. She is also sought after for speaking engagements and radio and television appearances. Her book is a best-seller and Kate considers herself a liberal Christian who believes deeply in the power of Christ and the lord. She is also a very sensual woman and her love for Paul is unconditional and unwavering. She wishes Paul would marry her but he seems to have an aversion to cementing the relationship though it is monogamous and committed. Kate's book and talks are about the day to day things in her life that she believes make her an `every woman' and also bring her closer to God. She is raising a daughter, Ruby, as a single mother with a mostly absentee father. Paul's relationship with Ruby is good though he does not try to substitute as her dad.

As the book opens, Paul has gone to see about work in Manhattan and is not thrilled about the quality of the job he is being asked to do. He is reticent to accept the contract. Money does not play a huge part in his life though he makes more than enough to get by. With Kate's success, money is the very least of his problems and Kate is happy enough to support them both. On his way back home, he stops in a park near Tarrytown to sit and think, to ponder his life and his reasons for being so strongly opposed to the possibility of the work he was just offered. Though Paul thinks he is alone, he soon realizes that there is someone else close by, a man and his dog.

The man with the dog is Will Claff, though that is not the name he goes by anymore. He has traveled from his home city of Los Angeles around the country, changing his name in each place he stops. His modus operandi is that he usually meets a woman who takes pity on him and will put him up for a while. Will tells the woman that he has traveled to her community to take a job but the person who offered him the job committed suicide right before Will arrived. Thus, he is without work and without means. The truth is that Will has about five thousand dollars in gambling debts and he is paranoid that the people he owes money to are out to get him and surely will kill him once he's found.

Will has just finished jogging, and as the paths of these two men cross, Paul witnesses Will being cruelly sadistic to his dog. This is not an act that Paul can tolerate and, impulsively, he acts in a way that will change his life forever. This can be a theme in Spencer's books - the idea of one impulsive act forever creating a changed and damaged life - and is observed in A Ship Made of Paper and Endless Love.

From this day onward, Paul wonders about himself, about his core essence and how civilized he truly is or isn't. He questions whether he is feral, an animal at the core and not a good man. The book is beautifully written and dramatically unfolds. It is deep, thrilling, and unbearably difficult to read at times. Spencer has created a gem, a modern look at good and evil. While he provides the questions, the answers and judgments rest in the hands of the reader.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c89af60) out of 5 stars THREE REASONS TO BUY THIS BOOK: Aug. 25 2011
By Constant Listener - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dear Fellow Reader,

Here are three reasons to buy this book:

1) You've read and enjoyed any other novel by Scott Spencer and you're wondering if this one will also be worth several hours of your time (it is).

2) You're a sucker for a good opening and you believe that a finely worded opening passage is almost certainly a precursor to a finely worded novel. Scott Spencer is a master opener (see the first sentence of ENDLESS LOVE) who knows how to grasp and hold onto a reader's attention. Consider the opening line of MAN IN THE WOODS:

"It might be for pity's sake -- for surely there must be pity for Will Claff somewhere along the cold curve of the universe -- but now and again a woman finds him compelling, and offers him a meal, a caress, a few extra dollars, and a place to stay, and lately that is the main thing keeping him alive."

3) You've read and pondered books like THE STRANGER and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and you are intrigued by stories of seemingly benign men in the aftermath of seemingly accidental crimes.

I have read and enjoyed every novel by Scott Spencer since his multi-million seller ENDLESS LOVE (1979) and can attest to the fact that if you are the kind of reader who appreciates literary fiction full of quality metaphor and careful attention to the details of the human heart and its interactions with the world, then there is an extremely high chance you will fully appreciate MAN IN THE WOODS.


Constant Reader II (a.k.a. Constant Listener)
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9cb3a84c) out of 5 stars Captivating read, richly written Nov. 11 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I recently finished Man in the Woods, and waited to write this review. I bought the book based upon a favorable review in the New York Times Book Review. From its basic description, it sounded like an American "Crime and Punishment"--early on, the protagonist kills a person of doubtful importance by contemporary standards, then lives with what he has done. As the story unravels, the weight of his action takes its toll. The novel is entirely different from Crime and Punishment, as it turns out, but was nevertheless a great psychological study not only of the protagonist, but the other imperfect characters that fill his life.

Other reviewers have criticized the book because, in their opinion, a lot of the side issues explored are not fully developed; I have to disagree. From a literary standpoint, I found the lack of full resolution very rewarding. The book invites the reader to ponder an issue, to develop his or her own views on an issue, and to observe how this issue affects the characters.

I also felt the book had some of the most memorable writing I've encountered in recent years.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9ccc5aec) out of 5 stars A Man of Honor Dec 29 2010
By Casey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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
HASH(0x9cb3af48) out of 5 stars so intelligently built that it is never less than a pleasure to read Sept. 27 2010
By Bookreporter - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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