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Scott Spencer's new thriller, "Man in the Woods," reviewed by Patrick Anderson

By Patrick Anderson
Monday, September 20, 2010; C02

MAN IN THE WOODS

By Scott Spencer

Ecco. 305 pp. $24.99

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. It's about many things, including love, God and the random accidents that can change our lives. Spencer's most famous novel, "Endless Love" (1979), dealt with obsessive teenage passion; this one is about grown-ups confronting both the joys and dangers that love can bring.

The lovers are Kate Ellis and Paul Phillips. When Kate appeared in Spencer's 2004 novel, "A Ship Made of Paper," she was drinking too much and losing her lover to another woman. But much has changed in the new book, set in the closing months of 1999. Kate has embraced both Alcoholics Anonymous and Christianity, and written an inspirational, best-selling book about her new life. Moreover, she's fallen wildly in love with Paul, and they're living together, along with her 8-year-old daughter, in her house in the Hudson River Valley. Good-hearted Kate, in her early 40s, is bright, articulate and lusty; taciturn Paul, a master carpenter, is 10 years older, handsome, independent and more spiritual than religious. They're one of the healthiest, happiest couples you'll find in today's fiction.

But, this being a Scott Spencer novel, their happiness is soon imperiled. Early in the book, returning home after a frustrating day in Manhattan, Paul stops in a state park to unwind and happens on a man who is beating his dog. Paul asks him to stop, the man takes offense, a fight ensues, and, to Paul's horror, the man dies, whereupon Paul flees. When he tells Kate what happened, she fully supports him. Nothing appears in the papers, and they hope the whole thing will go away. However, we readers know what Paul and Kate do not, that a dogged ex-policeman is pursuing the case. Thus, an agonizing question hovers over the rest of the story: Will these two decent people have their happiness destroyed (perhaps by manslaughter charges) because of a senseless encounter with an unbalanced man?

It's a good plot, but we often forget about it as we're swept along by the beauty of Spencer's writing. Here, for example, is a glimpse of Kate's daughter: "She shields her eyes with her little starfish of a hand." Kate jokes about AA gatherings where "there is an unspoken competition in these meetings, a race to the bottom, in which having suffered the greatest humiliations, the most bewildering blackouts, the most irrevocable losses of love, occupation, position, and self-respect makes you the winner." But she's not joking when she tells a friend who's fallen off the wagon: "It's like a demon, Sonny, and it's furious with you for turning your back on it. It will do anything and say anything to get you to put it inside of you."

Born-again Kate agonizes a lot about religion: "Kate has sometimes despaired that the average intelligence in the nation of unbelievers is drastically higher than the intelligence in the devout community. . . . Yet if Christ and his message are real, then the dumbbells win and the chrome domes lose." Sometimes Paul seems to have become her religion: "Holy is the silence he affords her when he sees she is thinking, holy are the windows he has placed in her house, in her life, and her soul, holy is the smell of wood, holy is the carpenter, holy is his gaze when she is speaking, holy is the catch in his breath when she kisses him. . . ." Her eloquent tribute ends, finally, "Holy is his stumbling circular path to God."

And here is Paul on Kate: "He is not unfamiliar with successful people, but he has never had a relationship with a woman of large and worldly achievement, and the pleasure it brings him to bask in the reflected glow of her success has been a surprise to Paul, with an unexpected erotic component. There is something grand about going home with a woman everybody loves." And: "He loves her expression during sex, open and undefended, with a creaturely purity and singularity of purpose."

This is a book to savor and read aloud, a book that is variously wise, funny and heartbreaking. But how does it end? What about the man in the woods? Poor Kate worries incessantly that "they will never outrun it, it will catch up to him, to them, it will destroy everything. " The outcome must not be revealed here, except to say that it is as powerful as everything else in the book. "Man in the Woods" is one of the three best novels I've read this year -- the others are Laura Lippman's "I'd Know You Anywhere" and Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" -- and if you pressed me, I'd put it at the top of the list.

Scott Spencer will speak at the National Book Festival on Sept. 25 at 2:30 p.m. in the Fiction & Mystery pavilion.

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