Thursday, January 13, 2011

Man in the Woods, by Scott Spencer

How would it change your life if you killed a man? That is the provocative question Scott Spencer poses in Man in the Woods. At the center of the story is Paul Phillips, a skilled carpenter, who lives in upstate New York with his girlfriend Kate, who has built a successful career as a writer and speaker featuring her self-deprecatingly humorous reflections on finding Jesus as a recovering alcoholic, and Kate's eight-year-old daughter Ruby. One day, driving home from NYC, Paul stops at a state park to collect his thoughts. He sees a man (the reader has the advantage of knowing the man is something of a scumbag, on the lam because of gambling debts) abusing his dog. Paul intervenes to save the dog and, when the situation gets totally out of hand, kills the man. He takes the dog, whom he calls Shep, and leaves.

The rest of the book deals with the effect of this violent episode on Paul and, after he confides in her, on Kate and their relationship. Spencer throws a variety of other characters into the mix--the overweight cop who is investigating the murder, the "debt collector" who is a suspect in the case, Paul's sister and her Iranian-Lebanese husband (who has immigration problems), Paul's lesbian apprentice Evangeline--but they re little more than distractions. What we care about is the spiral that Paul, Kate, and Ruby find themselves in. While all the cracks in their psyches and their relationship may not be caused by the murder, it's impact is certainly great.

The story is disturbing--perhaps never more so than when Ruby begins to have serious psychological issues--engaging, and surprising.

Favorite passages:
A walk in the woods is like wading through a river; you can't walk in the same woods twice, no matter how you may try. You can tread the same path and at the same pace and at the same time of day, you can measure your steps so that Tuesday's walk matches Mondays as closely as possible, but no matter what, the walk will be singular and unique. Leaves will have fallen since your last time here, pinecones, acorns, berries, shit, a beer can, a candy wrapper. Procreation will have taken place, pursuit, death, shoots will have been eaten, brush will have been trampled, bark will have peeled, roots will have grown deeper. Decay and regeneration are a wheel that will not stop turning, even now, autumn by the calendar, winter by the bone, the gray wash-water sky, the liquefying leaves underfoot, even now the wheel turns, slower than in the warmer months but with a bleak grandeur.

Kate takes a deep breath; she is aware of her soul's sudden sourness. Where is the grace, the pity, where is the warmth? They have all fled, along with God. . . . Were they all just the tail tied to the kite that was her faith, and now that the string has snapped, have they all disappeared into the wild blue?

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