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Scott Spencer's Man in the Woods: An American Tragedy for the 21st Century

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Thirty years ago, Scott Spencer's Endless Love pulled off that rarest of parlays in modern-day fiction: a "literary" novel that crossed over and became a pop success -- a best-seller that spawned a terrible Brooke Shields movie and a saccharine Diana Ross/Lionel Richie theme-song. Since then, he has written six novels of extraordinary scope and range -- books as diverse as a Hitchcockian study of a lover's death and re-appearance (Waking the Dead), and a vision of the world as seen through the eyes of the son of a Dylan-esque rock-and-roll genius (The Rich Man's Table). Now, with his new book, Man in the Woods, I think Spencer is about to cross over again, because he has written nothing less than An American Tragedy for the 21st century.

Like Dreiser's masterpiece, Man in the Woods illuminates American life by focusing on a single act of murder. In this case, it's an accidental one, uniting five characters, each wildly different and each drawn with astonishing clarity. Paul Phillips, the protagonist, is a high-level carpenter and cabinet-maker -- and one of the book's deepest pleasures is the way it portrays the inner life of an artisan, one who feels the grain and swirl of the wood beneath his hands the way a poet senses consonants and vowels. One gray afternoon, in a forest off the Saw Mill Parkway, Paul crosses path with a fugitive lowlife named Will Claff, who has hideously funkified his own life by placing (and losing) a $5,000 bet on a meaningless game between the Portland TrailBlazers and the Seattle Supersonics (the mundane nature of that game is a stroke of genius). When the gentle-souled Phillips objects to the way Claff is beating his dog -- and Claff, paranoid to the point of hallucination, imagines that Paul is a collector sent by the mob -- their argument turns physical, and the physical turns fatal. Without ever meaning to, Paul kills Claff -- and, taking pity on the beaten mutt, adopts it as he flees the scene.

The proverbial tree -- in this case, a human life -- has fallen in the forest, but no-one has heard it ... except the man who felled it. So the driving tension of the story becomes: what happens when a live-and-let-live man is forced to take a life? And how can you survive, day to day, when you've become the homicide cop hot on your own trail, when your own conscience becomes a relentless detective? Do you keep your crime a secret? Or do you dare to share it with a soul-mate?

Paul's soul-mate is Kate Ellis, a hugely successful author of bohemian-Christian, recovery-based books, who shares a house with him in "Leyden," New York -- clearly modeled on Spencer's own home-town of Rhinebeck. Their household is also peopled by Ruby, Kate's grade-school-aged daughter, and now by their adopted dog, whom Spencer has the audacity to name "Shep."

W.C. Fields famously warned against sharing the stage with children and dogs, but Ruby and Shep are drawn with such haunting insight they'd even make that old drunk re-consider. It's an intimidating challenge to portray the inner life of a mongrel without being cute, and it's one of the book's many pleasures that Spencer brings it off.

Another joy of the book is the way it toys with genre. Clearly, there are elements of noir and crime fiction at work here, but the story provides genre kicks without genre formula, so you never sense exactly where it's going. An actual detective picks up the trail, and his tracking of Paul is an exciting subplot, but the truly compelling suspense -- and mystery -- evolves from the killing's effect on Paul, Kate and Ruby. Counterpointed with this suspense is another tension, provided by the timing of the story--the days leading up to the end of the last century, and the fears -- hilarious in retrospect -- about Y2K. Here is Spencer on that curious phenomenon:

"In an instant of ice-clear certainty Kate knows that when midnight strikes and all the computers that are responsible to keeping everyone sane and alive fail or don't fail, the end result will be basically nothing. We are not being kept alive by algorithms of 1s and 0s, we are not creatures of some cosmic mainframe. Y2K is going to be a bust, a big letdown posing as a huge relief, a sore disappointment that we will agree to be pleased about. All the precautions, the hard drives copied, the larders filled, the flights postponed, the water stored, the personal information photocopied, the bank accounts emptied into floor safes, wall safes, mattresses, the candles and the kerosene, and the firewood, all those apocalyptic speeches from our leaders -- it was all a desperate attempt to find some meaning, a predictable narrative. The hour will come and it will pass, and the only horror of it will be just that -- another hour will have passed, and after that another one will, and then another. Y2K will be soon forgotten. The things for which we feverishly prepare aren't generally the things that actually happening. Our undoing comes waltzing in through another door altogether..."

I've rarely read a passage with such ferocious insight into our national psyche, so telling about our predilection to seek out a pseudo-apocalypse for comfort at the very moment that a genuine one is lurking just beyond our field of vision -- an insight that's amplified by the unspoken awareness of what would happen in lower Manhattan just nine months later.

So Man in the Woods turns into a mystery encompassing not only Paul and Claff, but the character of America at the turn of the century. Filled with superb nature writing -- the branches of a forest are like "ten thousand cracks in a mirror" -- as well as utterly original characters and a plot as compelling as a Lee Child tale, this is a book poised to take its place as an American classic.

Don't wait for the Brook Shields movie.