I finished this book over three weeks ago, and for three weeks I’ve been composing this post in my head. The thing is, although I enjoyed reading Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer, I’m not sure how much I actually liked it. Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever been engaged by a book, but when you finished it, set it down and walked away realized you didn’t like it all that much?
But I didn’t dislike it, either. In fact, I can think of a lot of things to like about Man in the Woods. One is the writing, which is clean. Two is the characters, who are well-developed and drive the story along nicely. Three is the single action at the center of the book: Paul Phillips has simply (or not so simply) had one of those days. He stops at a park in the woods to relax and reflect before going home to his girlfriend Kate and her daughter Ruby. As he’s taking in the fine fall day in the woods, a man named Will Cliff approaches with a dog. In short, the man begins to beat the dog, and Paul tries to stop him.
As readers, we get Will’s point of view as well, so we know exactly why things escalate the way they do in the park. Essentially, a random series of events and a misunderstanding set the scene for a violent act, and the rest of the book is about…well, it’s about what to do next. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more about the book without telling you what happens in the woods, and I suppose now that I think about it, that scene is one of the most suspenseful I’ve ever read. It’s the “What happens next?” that makes the book so gripping, and the ending is quite stunning in its own way.
But there were parts of the book that dragged along for me, and those parts mostly had to do with Paul’s girlfriend Kate and her daughter Ruby, who are apparently characters from an earlier novel of Spencer’s, A Ship Made of Paper. Kate has written a spiritual memoir about her recovery from alcoholism, and she tours the country talking about her born-again faith. That faith is tested by what happens in the novel, but for me Kate was a distraction, and at times it felt like she was present just to bring the religious dilemma to bear for Paul. They also seem not just like an unlikely couple, but a disconnected one. I wonder if I knew more about Ruby and Kate’s story if those parts of the book might have meant something more.
So it was gripping, it was interesting, and I would recommend it, even–but I still can’t say I liked it. And who knows, maybe liking a book isn’t always the most necessary thing. It certainly made me think.
Paul turns off the truck’s engine. Even this small change in reality is upsetting—the engine’s hum gone, the headlights extinguished. Everything must be just so for him to tolerate the memory of this afternoon. He is like a man carrying a load that is far heavier than he can manage but who has nevertheless found a way to hoist it up and stagger forward a few steps. If his balance is at all disturbed, the true weight of what he is carrying will assert itself, and the task will prove impossible.
Paul takes a breath; even under better circumstances, it is often difficult for him to order his thoughts when it is time to present them. Even when he can bring his thoughts forward he has trouble sequencing them—he often sounds like a child to himself, interrupting himself with salient details he forgot to put in, and further interrupting himself with so many parenthetical thoughts that the implied parentheses burst open like soaking wet paper sacks. The greater pity of it is that he knows what it is like to imagine himself eloquent, and to imagine his opinions and memories flowing out like a song as he spins an anecdote about his youthful travels and travails, or about the extreme alpha-males he meets in the course of his work, but these songs remain unsung, buried and entombed beneath an avalanche of you-knows and nervous laughs.
But 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? And when our senses are clouded by wishes and fears and preexisting images, what chance do we have to glimpse ourselves as others see us?