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Book Review

Crime and secrets haunt ‘Woods’

By Nan Goldberg
October 2, 2010

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In Scott Spencer’s novels, falling in love is a lot like catching some terrifying, potentially fatal disease. If there’s any joy involved in falling in love, it’s momentary, a brief interlude on the way to a much longer-lasting despair.

In his 2003 novel, “A Ship Made of Paper,’’ Kate Ellis was collateral damage. She got to watch as her longtime partner, Daniel, fell helplessly in love with another woman. It was a thankless role, but Kate did get some of the best lines: “What if all those emotions we call love turn out to be what’s really worst in us, what if it’s all the firings of the foulest, most primitive part of the back brain, what if it’s just as savage and selfish as rage or greed or lust?’’

Kate was a journalist back then. And a drinker. By the time Daniel left for good, she was drunk a lot of the time. But between then and now, she’s stopped drinking. She has also, to her own astonishment, found God. She has written a book about her journey to faith, and it is a bestseller. And, in Spencer’s new novel, “Man in the Woods,’’ it’s Kate’s turn to fall in love.

Her lover is Paul Phillips, a carpenter, whose father abandoned the family when Paul was young and whose mother surrendered to depression. Paul never imagined that he would someday be domesticated, with a woman and child and a permanent place to live. Nevertheless, with Kate he discovers an unexpected capacity for happiness.

So he has no motive for the violent crime he commits. Or rather, his motive is anti-violent: Driving home from New York City, he pulls off the parkway to stretch his legs and sees a man beating his dog. When he tries to intervene, the man responds by beating it even harder. Paul’s reaction has unintended consequences, which seem accidental. This doesn’t make the man he kills any less dead.

Paul’s instinct is to tell no one. But killing a man and keeping it secret changes him in ways Kate senses but doesn’t understand. When he finally breaks down and tells her, her initial reaction is relief; she’d been expecting him to say he was leaving her.

For a while, they both try to live as if what happened hadn’t happened, pretending it isn’t on their minds while secretly scanning the local papers for news.

“If you’ve done something you have to trust yourself to deal with it, within yourself, on your own terms,’’ says Paul’s friend Todd, sensing a problem without knowing what it is. “Men like us, we don’t look to other people to fix things for us. . . . Whatever it is that’s bothering you, you’ll deal with it, I know you will, you always have. You’ve got something that’s so . . . far beyond adherence to the rules — you’ve got honor.’’

Really? What constitutes honor here? Is it OK to walk away from a murder because you didn’t mean to do it? Or should you turn yourself in, allowing one ghastly moment to destroy you and everyone who loves you?

Spencer doesn’t say, and his story doesn’t end so much as stop — abruptly, and unhappily, with such questions unanswered. The only certainty is that so far at least, Kate Ellis isn’t lucky in love.

Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer and book critic.

MAN IN THE WOODS By Scott Spencer

Ecco, 307 pp., $24.99