Tuesday October 5th, 2010

Devotion and Doubt

Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer
Ecco, 320 pp., $24.99

Human passion—its unruly nature and enslaving properties, its assault on order—has enlivened Western literature since Zeus discovered the thunderbolt. We never tire of the subject. Its treatment, though, is another matter, and there is no shortage of atrocious writing on the theme. Such hot terrain needs a cool navigator. Scott Spencer, the author of 10 novels, including Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper, is arguably the contemporary literary master on the subject of obsessive love. His latest work, Man in the Woods, focuses on the aftermath of a random, violent encounter, and the fearsome scope of its psychological and moral impact. The story engages questions of faith, morality and conscience without sacrificing itself to Big Themes. This is a powerful thriller that delivers, on multiple levels, right to the last page.

Because Spencer loves his characters, he creates complicated, deeply flawed people who behave badly and yet frustrate our ability to judge them. In this story, he returns to the fictional town of Leyden, in the Hudson Valley, which served as the setting of A Ship Made of Paper, and revives two characters from that novel. Kate Ellis, an alcoholic and victim of betrayal, has undergone a spiritual transformation, and now enjoys enormous success as a motivational author and speaker. Her daughter Ruby is an adorable 9-year-old whose playful, shifting modes of self-presentation reflect the comfort she feels at home. Together, they bask in the love of Paul Phillips, Kate’s do-right boyfriend. All in all, a happy group. But Spencer only shows them together after the novel’s devastating central incident, so what we see is not really a happy family, but the effort to hold on to one. This structure provides a mounting tension throughout Man In The Woods, between background and foreground, known and unknown, faith and doubt.

Spencer places the main action very early in the novel, permitting only a brief, but compelling, glimpse of Kate and Paul in the short segment that precedes it. We hear of Paul before we see him—described by Kate as a latter-day Daniel Boone, a real American male, who “shaves with a straight razor. He doesn’t wait for the hot water to come on before he steps into the shower. He makes things with his hands. His beautiful hands. He can cook, he can sew. He can fix anything, and if he needs a tool he doesn’t have he actually makes the tool. One other thing. He pays cash and he carries it in his front pocket…” The outer man is meant to reflect an inner strength, a man who is a law unto himself, and of whom one might expect the Right Stuff.

Kate’s praise is a spontaneous afterthought to a spiritual talk she delivers to a packed audience of female devotees who hang on her every word. Her aggressive confessional style, which she confuses with honesty, is as wildly popular as anyone living in our time might expect. Her misfortune, so well described in A Ship Made Of Paper, has become her opportunity. If her performance makes us a little queasy, we still want her to be happy, and to celebrate her success. We also want to believe in Paul’s authenticity, even as we meet him, sitting meekly in the back row of her audience, like a cowboy wearing an apron.

We follow Paul through a day in the city, collecting evidence of his manliness. He is offended by upholstered headboards and the cheap veneer of hotel tables. An artisan attuned to the subtleties of wood, he interacts with the spoiled, wealthy clients who employ him. He earnestly clings to the Code of Paul, in all the most compromising places. We feel his frustration, and share his urge to throttle one annoying client. We drive past the former home of his father, and learn that Paul was a target of violence as a child. By the time he is “free of the gravitational pull of the city,” we also “would like to see something beautiful that neutralizes the sourness of the day.” And so, we are right with him when he enters Martingham State Park, and stumbles into a violent encounter that leaves one man dead and Paul the custodian of a dog and a dreadful secret.

In Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper, the secret heart of the protagonist is a place of refuge, where obsession is nourished. Secrecy is an intoxicant that overwhelms guilt and responsibility. But throughout Man In the Woods, Paul’s secret is more like a toxic waste dump, poisoning him and seeping out into his surroundings. The burden of what he has done increases with every lie he tells, just as every lie erodes his character. Within hours of his encounter, Paul has spun an elaborate web, at the center of which resides the dog Shep, the only physical link to his crime. In a burlesque of parenthood, Paul makes a present of the dog to Ruby.

In Shep, Spencer strikes a brilliant contrapuntal note to the dense, inner turmoil that infects first Paul, then Kate and finally—most vividly—Ruby. The “inner beastliness” which Paul is horrified to discover within himself is comically absent from the beast itself. In dozens of small details throughout the story, Spencer describes the dog as dog, and wisely refrains from anthropomorphism. Paul, however, feels magically bound to Shep, and in the isolation formed by his secret, imagines in the dog a kinship of memory. In a wonderful domestic echo of the killing, Shep flushes out a rat snake in the kitchen, which Paul then reluctantly kills at Kate’s urging:

Paul, looming over the now-inert creature, watches it for signs of life, and Shep, standing between Paul and Kate, looks first at the snake and then at Paul, and Paul, his chest heaving from the exertion and emotion of the kill, wonders if the dog is remembering what he is remembering.

Shortly after this, Paul confesses to Kate, and makes her complicit.

Kate’s facility with words, coupled with her drinking and a tendency to engage controversy, complicated the ability to like her in A Ship Made of Paper. In this new incarnation—sober, swaddled in a cheerful faith—she monitors those sharp edges in her relations with Paul. We are made aware of her sincere wish not to blow this one. Paul’s verbal slowness is not meant to impugn his intelligence, but let’s face it—Kate is smarter than Paul. Once she becomes his partner in crime, their energies diverge in fascinating ways. Kate devotes herself to dusting their tracks, while Paul tries to redeem himself through good deeds. Doubt and faith switch partners, until Kate is dismayed at the naive belief that rubs off on Paul: “It’s one thing to tell someone they are your angel, but it’s something else to see that person suddenly begin flapping their arms as if expecting to fly.”

Spencer casts all of his biggest questions in doubt: Who is good? What to believe? How to live? His agnosticism is evident in the confused turmoil of Kate’s waning faith, Paul’s desperate move toward it, and Ruby’s magical belief in her own power to cause harm. Spencer tests their limits while engaging our empathy. He maintains a tense rhythm between large and small events, ideas of fate and free will, and his characters’ complicated responses to Paul’s crime. Set at the turn of the millennium, he contrasts the faux hysteria of Y2K with the palpable, smothering dread of discovery that plagues Kate and Paul’s days. True to form, Spencer offers a subtle inversion of foreground and background in the final pages, as the story’s resolution, in which we are thoroughly invested, suddenly appears to us in the bright light of a much larger crime, just out of the frame.

Lila Garnett is a photographer, photo consultant, and writer living in Brooklyn.

Mentioned in this review:

Man in the Woods
A Ship Made of Paper
A Ship Made of Paper
Endless Love