Book Review: Shaggy-dog story tosses lives in many directions Bad behavior
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From Longfellow's "forest primeval" to Sondheim's fairy-tale woods, there's a schizophrenic nature about our relationship to the woodlands, beautiful and scary at the same time.
Bad things can happen among the murmuring pines and hemlocks -- Satan seducing the girls of Salem, Indians scalping settlers, children eaten by wolves and violent acts occurring behind the trees.
"Thing is, guys get into the woods -- we go back to our elemental selves and [stuff] happens," says a character in Scott Spencer's 10th novel.
His latest lands us in the wilderness north of New York near the Hudson River and Tarrytown. It's a familiar spot for the 65-year-old writer, who set his 2003 book, "A Ship Made of Paper" there. Mr. Spencer lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Paul, a youngish artist of a carpenter who makes a good living remodeling the homes of the wealthy, pulls off the Saw Mill Parkway on the way home from a rough day in Manhattan in November 1999 into a state park to take a break.
He is "glad he has ... taken this time to absorb the melancholy solitude of the woods and the poignancy of the autumn."
The world suddenly turns upside down for Paul and the unpleasant "man in the woods" he runs into in the deserted park in late afternoon. This chance encounter leaves the man -- Will Claf on the lam from gambling debts -- dead, killed by Paul in an uncharacteristic fury.
The cause of it all was a dog Claf was abusing, a "tall, bony" creature, now suddenly Paul's responsibility with the man in woods now dead in the woods.
Paul thinks, "This much he knows: his life is a coin toss that has been flipped and now against the darkening sky it turns over and over."
Mr. Spencer admires these kinds of independent, skilled artisans in their worn jeans, scuffed work boots and sawdust in their long hair, but Paul isn't the most interesting character in "Man in the Woods." His lover, Kate Ellis, is.
Her character first appeared in "A Ship Made of Paper." Now, Kate's transformed herself from an irresponsible drunk with a baby into a sober celebrity author perhaps modeled on Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic saved by Jesus.
Kate's book is cleverly titled "Prays Well With Others," a best-seller that wins her lucrative lecture engagements and a popular radio show.
But, she's a conflicted celebrity, shoving a $1 million royalty check deep into the glove compartment of her car, yet enjoying the material comforts her brand of Christianity has brought her. Much like Ms. Lamott, Kate is both self-effacing and aggressively smug in confirming her faith publicly -- until she loses it.
Like Paul, Claf and later, Paul's sister who is hit by a car, the change came in an instant, without warning. Mr. Spencer's message is that we can take nothing for granted. Our hard-earned, or sometimes lucky lives of success and prosperity hang by a slender thread.
It's not an original theme, to be sure; the appeal of "Man in the Woods" comes from its execution -- varied characters, sharp, wry observations about America on the cusp of the 21st century and a clever detective-story plot that hangs on that shaggy dog which becomes a favorite of Paul's and Kate's.
Mr. Spencer tends to dwell on his characters' traits to the point of annoyance and forces his prose from the clear-eyed to the postcard pretty. He does know, though, how to hold our interest with the suspense of Paul's fate always close to the surface.
In the current debate over the novel's value as entertainment vs. a deeper interior journey, "Man in the Woods" falls on the side of the former, but with a smart, knowingly cynical edge.
First Published September 19, 2010 12:00 am