The characters in Scott Spencer's 10th novel keep hoping -- maybe even praying -- that there's a reason life unfurls the way it does, that each action and consequence is clear and fair and understandable and necessary, if not always palatable. They want life to be as simple as a walk through the woods: ``It's step by step, one foot in front of the other. What could be more fundamental? It's like breathing -- inhale through the nostrils, exhale through the mouth, the taste and tickle of your own mortality coursing over your lips like running water over stones.''
Mortality and our uneasy relationship with it is one of the intriguing themes of Man in the Woods, which carefully blends thriller elements with more philosophical questions about morality, faith, responsibility and guilt. The novel is something of a departure for Spencer, who tends to specialize in unmasking the frailty of men -- the gender, not all mankind -- and examining how desire causes them to make questionable decisions (burning down a house in Endless Love; heedlessly destroying a relationship in A Ship Made of Paper; embarking on a sex tour of Europe in Willing).
But Paul Phillips, one of two main protagonists in Man in the Woods, is not a typical Spencer man. He's not rendered foolish by his desires. He's, well, manly. A sought-after furniture maker for the high-tax-bracket set, he has been on his own since he was a teenager, enjoying a peripatetic life that has involved many towns, many jobs -- and, presumably, many women. But now things have changed. ``He's like the most old-fashioned man in the world,'' says his girlfriend Kate (we'll get to her in a minute). ``He 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. . . . He can fix anything, and if he needs a tool he doesn't have he actually makes the tool. . . . He pays cash and he carries it in his front pocket.''
Kate is telling this to a crowd of admirers, but you can't fault her enthusiasm. She's not used to the sort of guy who can look at a tree and shape it into a work of art. Hell, she's not used to a guy who can fix things. Who wouldn't like this guy?
Once the partner of A Ship Made of Paper's Daniel Emerson, Kate had her heart broken by his reckless infidelity with a neighbor. Since then, she's quit drinking and found success as the author of a bestselling nonfiction book Prays Well With Others. She and her daughter Ruby live with Paul in her house in upstate New York. She's wealthy and happy, devout in her Anne Lamott-esque, cheerfully liberal Christianity, even on the eve of uncertainty (Y2K -- remember when we worried about it?). And Paul is the icing on the cake.
But Y2K is the least of Kate's problems. One day Paul, brooding about his past, comes across a man in the woods who is savagely beating a dog. What happens next triggers a meltdown of everything Kate and Paul have built -- and believe.
Man in the Woods lacks the biting humor of Willing; its tone is serious and pensive even as the plot veers into suspense territory. The suspense angle propels the action in the book for the most part -- what happens if we're not made to pay for our wrongdoings? -- but what Spencer renders most interesting is the way in which a violent act shatters Paul's calm, stoic facade and pricks incessantly at Kate's once-sturdy beliefs. The change seems to affect Ruby too. Her behavior grows odd, but her troubles aren't quite fleshed out enough to be compelling.
The novel is well written, and its characters are thoughtfully shaped, though it never quite reaches the exceptional level of A Ship Made of Paper, which tackled racial questions in a unique, personal way. The essence of what Spencer is trying to say in Man in the Woods sometimes get a little confusing, as when Paul wonders, ``How can we ever see ourselves, let alone see ourselves as others see us, when the person seeing is the same as the person seen?''
But then again, life is messy, death is messy, and questions about both are, too. And nothing lasts: not the good; not the bad. That much Spencer gets right. ``[E]verything feels impermanent,'' Paul realizes toward the novel's end. Not a surprising revelation but certainly true