Man in the Woodsby Scott Spencer
One of the most acclaimed modern American novelists, Scott Spencer captures the intensity of human passion—and its capacity to both destroy and redeem—with unparalleled precision and insight. Now, in his most stunning novel yet, this wry, witty, and deeply sensitive writer returns to the territory of his New York Times bestseller A Ship Made/b>
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One of the most acclaimed modern American novelists, Scott Spencer captures the intensity of human passion—and its capacity to both destroy and redeem—with unparalleled precision and insight. Now, in his most stunning novel yet, this wry, witty, and deeply sensitive writer returns to the territory of his New York Times bestseller A Ship Made of Paper, in a gripping and provocative psychological thriller of morality and manhood, choice and fate.
Paul has been on his own since he was a teenager, leading a life of freedom and independence, beholden to no one and nothing. Fearless, resolute, and guided by his own private moral code, he has hunted for food in Alaska, fought forest fires, and been deputized in a manhunt for a kidnapper in South Dakota.Once he thought his life would have no particular rhyme or reason, touched only by transient strangers. Then he meets the beautiful, intelligent, loving Kate Ellis and her daughter, Ruby, who offer order and constancy. But Paul is a man of deep convictions, and the compromises we all make to get along in the world elude him.
On his way home after rejecting a job remodeling a luxurious Manhattan apartment, Paul stops to gather his thoughts at a state park just off the highway. Instead of peace, he finds a man savagely beating a dog, and in a few fateful moments Paul is plunged into a world of violence and onto a tumultuous journey of self-knowledge, guilt, and redemption.
With the psychological acuity and razor-sharp prose for which he has been celebrated, award-winning, bestselling novelist Scott Spencer once again takes us on an unforgettable journey of manhood lost and found.
In one of the richer efforts by the veteran novelist, a compelling setup and stunning conclusion compensate for the thematic navel gazing through the middle.
Spencer returns to the scene of A Ship Made of Paper (2003), a novel that elicited some of his best reviews, bringing back writer Kate Ellis, her daughter, Ruby, and their hometown of Leyden, N.Y. Yet this novel isn't exactly a sequel and can be read independently of the earlier work. Its protagonist is Paul Phillips, a master craftsman who refuses to compromise either his carpentry or his principles. He has become Kate's lover and a surrogate father to Ruby after doing some work at their house. The divorced Kate, previously a newspaper reporter, is now the bestselling author of Prays Well with Others, an inspirational account of her recovering alcoholism and embrace of faith. With hints of Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott in "her kind of Christianity, one that includes a fair amount of swearing and swagger, left-of-center politics, and all the sex your average heathen would enjoy," she has come to believe that her life has a plan, purpose and meaning, and that the love she shares with Paul is an essential part of that divine will. A Dostoyevskian complication drives the plot, as chance (or is it fate?) leads Paul to tragedy—an encounter with a stranger in the woods, a man beating his dog, that will change the lives of all concerned and upset the delicate balance that Kate and Paul have come to believe is their destiny.Ultimately, the novel's title could refer as much to Paul, who must come to terms with the man he has become, after he did what he never believed he could. What seems to some like "a universe in which the pieces fit together beautifully" just might be "a universe where nothing is guaranteed and nothing can stop bad things from happening."
The depth of the characters, the questions they ask and the challenge they confront stay with the reader long after the conclusion.
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Read an Excerpt
Man in the WoodsA Novel
By Scott Spencer
EccoCopyright © 2011 Scott Spencer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt might be for pity's sakefor surely there must be pity for Will Claff
somewhere along the cold curve of the universebut now and again a woman
finds him compelling, and offers him a meal, a caress, a few extra dollars,
and a place to stay, and lately that is the main thing keeping him alive.
He is thousands of miles away from his home. His income, his job, his professional
reputation are all long gone, and now he has been on the run for so long, living out
of one suitcase, changing his name once in Minnesota, once in Highland
Park, Illinois, and once again in Philadelphia, that it is becoming
difficult to remember that just six months ago he had his own office, a
closet full of suits, and a nice rental off Ventura Boulevard, which he
shared with Madeline Powers, who, like Will, worked as an
accountant at Bank of America.
He used to think that women wouldn't pay you any attention
unless you were dressed in decent clothes and had some money to
spend, but it isn't true. He has been underestimating the kindness of
women. Women are so nice, it could make you ashamed to be a man.
Here he was, running for his life, buying his shirts at the dollar store,
his shoes at Payless, and getting his hair cut at the Quaker Corner
Barber and Beauty College in Philadelphia. Will had a guardian angel
there, too, in the form of Dinah Maloney, whom he met while she
was jogging with her dog. Dinah, small and bony, with short russet
hair, worried eyes, and nervous little hands, was thirty years old, ten
years younger than Will, and she happened to take a breather on the
same bench he was sitting on, and somewhere in the conversation,
when she told him that she owned a catering service called Elkins
Park Gourmet, he said, "You should call it Someone's in the Kitchen
with Dinah," and saw in her eyes something that gave him a little
bump of courage. He invited her to coffee at a place with outdoor
seating, and they sat there for an hour with her dog lashed to the leg
of a chair. He told her the same story he had already worked a couple of times
it might have been on Doris in Bakersfield, or Soo-Li in Colorado Springs,
or Kirsten in Highland Parkabout how he had come to town for a job,
only to find that the guy who had hired him had hung himself with his own belt
the day before. A lot of women didn't believe this story, and some who did couldn't
figure out how that would mean he had almost no money and needed a place to stay,
but a small, saving percentage took the story at face value, or decided
to trust the good feeling they had about him. Dinah has turned out
to be one of those.
She was a spiky, truculent sort, wary of customers, suppliers, and competitors,
but ready to make Will (she knew him as Robert) the first man ever to spend the night
in her house, partly because he seemed to find her attractive and partly on the weight
of her dog's apparent trust of him. ("Woody is my emotional barometer,"
she said.) She was a shy, basically solitary woman, an expert in the
culinary arts, a baker, a woman who gave off the scent of butter
and vanilla, an arranger of flowers, all of which led Will to assume
in her an old-fashioned faithfulness. He saw only her plainness, her
lack of makeup, her loose fitting checkered pants, her perforated
tan clogs, the dark circles under her eyes from the late hours working
corporate dinners and Main Line birthday parties, and he assumed
that she had a lonely woman's lack of resistance to anyone
who would choose her. He had no idea that Dinah had another boyfriend,
whom she had been seeing for six years, one of the mayor's
assistants, a married man whose wife worked in Baltimore on
Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Will is grateful to be an American; he doubts there is anywhere
else on earth where you can lose yourself like he needs to get lost,
where you can just go from state to state, city to city, not like in
cowboy times, but, still, no one has to know where you are. You can
drive across a state line but it's only a line on the map and the tires of
your car don't register the slightest bump. There's no guard, no gate,
no border, no one asks you for an ID, because no one cares. First you
are here, then you are there, until you're in Tarrytown, New York,
and it's time for your afternoon jog. He's still trying to lose the belly
fat acquired in the kitchen with Dinah.
The new apartment smells of emptiness, fresh paint, take-out coffee,
and the dog, Woody, stolen from Dinah the day she finally came
clean with him.
Will parts the blinds with two fingers and peeks out the window.
The cars parked on his street are all familiar and he knows by
now who owns each one. There's no one unusual walking the street,
either. All very routine, all very familiar. He often reminds himself
that the great danger is complacency, the way you can get so used to
checking things over that the world becomes like wallpaper and you
get too used to everything being nothing until one day when there
actually is something unusual you don't even notice it. He goes over
the compass points, north south east west. "The lion sleeps tonight,"
he sings, surprising himself. The sudden merriment excites the dog,
a brown shepherd mutt, whose thick, graying tail thumps against
the bare wooden floor. Will imagines the people in Mi Delicioso,
the luncheonette downstairs, looking up from their yellow rice and
"Easy, Woody Woodpecker," he says. Will feels a rush of affection
for the dog, and crouches in front of him, tugs the dog's ears
roughly. Woody is large, but his ears look like they belong on a dog
half his size. Considering the circumstances of Will's acquiring him,
the dog has been a good sport about the whole thing. "You and me,
Woody," Will says, taking the leash down from the nail next to the
front door. The dog scrambles up, tail wagging, but with a cringing,
uncertain quality to his excitement, squirming and bowing.
When the dog lived with Dinah Maloney in that dimly recalled
paradise called Philadelphia, his life was markedly different. He had
his own feather-filled bed on the floor and spent the coldest nights
sleeping in his mistress's bed. Food was plentiful and there were
frequent surprisesespecially when she came home from work with
shopping bags full of leftovers from whatever party she had catered.
The inchoate memories the dog holds of the food, and the woman
and the smells of the old house, live within him as bewilderment,
but his heart and mind have now re-formed around the loss, just as
he would compensate for an injured paw by changing his gait.
Will goes back to the window. It sometimes seems that he has
been peeking out of windows his whole life, always afraid that
someone or something was going to do a lot of harm to him, but
everything that has led up to these past few months has been like a
puppet show. The old fear was like an afternoon nap compared to
what he feels now.
He yanks the cord to raise the blinds and they crookedly cooperate.
He puts his hand to the glass. Cool November afternoon, gray
as old bathwater. He misses the California sun and wishes he had
soaked up more of it. Oh well. Best not to think of it. Self-pity dulls
Yet he does not consider it self-pity to bear in mind that even
in his nearly invisible state, he is a target. What tempts him toward
the siren song of self-pity is that it is not his fault. Back home in LA,
he had a run of bad luck that turned into very bad luck that made a
quantum leap to horrendous lucka last second shot from a third
string forward, undrafted out of college, a heave from the mid-court
line that clanged off the back of the rim, popped straight up in the
air, and dropped down through the hoop, barely ruffling the net.
There was nothing at stake in the late-season game, excepting, of course,
the five thousand dollars Will placed on the Portland Trailblazers to beat the Clippers, an aggressive bet on his part, but when he got the morning line and saw the Clippers weren't
even being given points, it seemed he was being offered a license to print money.
He would have bet more, if he could have, but he was already into his guy for
three thousand dollars and five more was all the credit he could get.
Not having bet more than 5K was the needle of good fortune he could find in
the haystack of bad luck.
But this is what he knows: it all happens for a reason.
The thing is, he was a good gambler. He was sensible, cool
headed, and his bets were based on reality, not blue skyeven the
bet on the Portland Trailblazers was smart, and he is sure that a
lot of people who knew the game, were real students of the NBA,
would have said it was a good bet. You can make a smart bet that
doesn't pay off . Some clown heaving up a shot from half-court, some
once-in-a-lifetime buzzer-beater? These things occur outside the arc
of probability. It was still a good bet.
Except he couldn't pay it off . The man through whom Will
used to place his bets was an old surfer, a Hawaiian named Tommy
Butler. Will never quite got it how Butler figured into the scheme
of things, if he was high up or peripheral to the organization, or
if there even was an organization. When Butler told him Accounts
Receivable was going to have to get involved"This is automatic,
man, when you get to a certain size debt and more than five days
pass, it's not personal"Will had no idea who was now in charge of
collecting the money. That's what made it so agonizingit could be
anyone! Every car door, every footstep, every ring of the phone: it
was a matter of anyone turning into everyone.
Someone is going to come looking for him, but Will doesn't
know who. Someone is somewhere or will be sometime soon. So
much mystery. But it all happens for a reason. Every detour, every
zigzag, every stinking night in a shit-box motel, even this brown
muttit's all adding up to something. He just doesn't know what,
not yet. The trick is to still be around when the game is revealed.
Hiding out and lying low are not unnatural acts for Will. He
doesn't need the creature comforts so important to othersthe
favorite robe, the favorite coffee cup, the favorite chair. What do
things like that mean in comparison to survival? Survival is the
main course, everything else is carrots and peas. As for hidingit
heightens the senses, like double overtime, or a photo finish.
Three weeks into his escape he had called Madeline, who was still
living in his old apartment on Ventura, even though she had her
own place. He was in Denver. It was about ten o'clock at night; he
was using the phone booth next to a convenience store, two blocks
from the motel where he was week by week. Two teenagers were
playing a game, tossing a Rockies hat back and forth and trying to
get it to land on the other guy's head. It was a thick, murky night,
no moon, no stars, the sky just a bucket of black paint someone
accidentally kicked over.
"Hey, it's me," he said, as soon as she picked up. He didn't want
to use his name.
"My God, where are you?" Madeline had a low, beautiful voice; it
used to make him feel pretty good just to hear it.
"Never mind that, I'm just letting you know."
"But where are you, I've been going crazy. How could you just
"I'm sorry. It was not exactly a planned thing."
"Okay, baby," she said. "I hear you. Okay. Just tell me where you
are. Tell me exactly where you are."
It was then that it hit himshe was in on it, a part of it.
"Things cool there?" he asked her.
"Do you have any idea how this feels? Has anyone ever done
something like this to you? Three weeks and you don't even call?"
"Well, I'm calling, but I gotta go."
"You gotta go where? This is nuts. Why don't you tell me what's
going on? Where are you?"
Will felt his heart harden and shrink to walnut size. This call
was a horrible mistake, but not for the reasons he had worried
about. He would like to have carried fond memories of Madeline,
but there she was, putting snakes in his garden. Who knew? Maybe
they offered her a piece of whatever they got out of him.
"You know what?" she said. "Now I really need you to listen to
this, baby, okay? Will you at least try and listen?" He had never heard
her voice quite like that, like he was her kid and she was going to try
to explain life to him.
"Go ahead," he said, daring her.
"Baby, this thing you're going through," she said. "It's all in your
head. I know you took some losses and I know you've got debts and
I'm pretty sure they're serious debts. But it's all gotten into your
mind. You're really not seeing it clearly. I know it's a serious situation,
but it's not all you're making it out to be. You don't need to be
running and hiding like this. What do you think they're going to do
to you? Kill you? How will they ever get their money? Break your
arms and legs? How will you be able to work and make money that
by the way would otherwise be going right into their pocket?"
Excerpted from Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer Copyright © 2011 by Scott Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Scott Spencer is the author of nine previous novels, including A Ship Made of Paper, Waking the Dead, and the international bestseller Endless Love. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s, and has taught writing at Columbia University, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Williams College, and for the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York.
- Rhinebeck, New York
- Date of Birth:
- September 1, 1945
- Place of Birth:
- Washington, D.C.
- B. A., University of Wisconsin, 1969
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This book was given to me by a friend with a rather qualified review: "I don't know. I think I liked it." Yikes. Well, my review is unqualified: do not waste your time. The story started out promisingly, and the writing, initially, was beautiful and evocative, which is why I gave it two rather than one star. But it seemed that the author (who've I've not read before and based on this book, won't read again) got through the confrontation in the woods, and then couldn't figure out how to proceed with the story. Plot points became pointless: Y2K? Really? How outdated! Had the protagonist been a 20th century guy struggling to find his way in the new millenium, this device would have been almost forgivable. But he is drawn as more of a 19th century man, a wannabe Thoreau. In the main, most of the characters are shallowly sketched out and many minor characters are given their own sections and then are never seen again. Did I really need to know anything about the landlord or the woman who was afraid of dogs? They moved the story forward not at all, their presence just underscoring the confusion of ideas and lack of substance in the book. It's almost laughable when one incredibly annoying character appears to spiral into psychosis, but her troubles are dismissed with "oh, she just needs less sugar and fewer additives in her food." WHAT? I stuck with the story to the bitter end, hoping that the triteness and banality that plagued it would somehow be redeemed. But no. And as the story wandered off into the ridiculous, the writing went with it, becoming forced and completely undermining the earlier beauty of the prose. If you want to read this story written well, try Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment instead.
"Man in the Woods" is extremely well written and interesting for the first 2/3 of the book, only to diminish one's anticipation with a final portion that seems pointless and hopeless. For some perverse reason the author is intent on fixating on his characters' human frailties and not the "higher" qualities they seem to be nurturing in the earlier stages of the book. The reader's desire for redemption and forgiveness in the characters that seems to be a driving force of the plot ultimately dissolves into seemingly random scenes of coincidental disappointment. I could not fathom what point the author was making, if any. Perhaps it was a commentary on the inability of humans to find ultimate meaning in their lives when cruel "fate" stands in the way, but I hardly needed another book about that! I wish I could recommend this book, but unfortunately I came away feeling let down.
Didn't quite know what to expect with this book. I had never read anything by Scott Spencer. I read a review of "Man In The Woods" and it piqued my interest enough to buy it. I started it one day, and couldn't really get into it. Then I was on a ten-hour plane ride from Frankfurt to Denver and I settled in and gave it another shot. By the end of the third chapter I was completely hooked. This book is like cocaine. You do a little, and you almost immediately want more. I could not put it down.