“It’s strange how the law seems to be completely asleep…and then suddenly one day it just opens its eyes and grabs you.”
That’s a line from late in “Man in the Woods,” when readers might be wondering if Paul Phillips will pay any consequence for his actions. The mid-section of this book will make you squirm. There’s a sensation that Phillips might walk away. He’s certainly found the perfect person in Kate Ellis, who knows a thing or two about life-changing moments and forgiveness. She’s a recovered alcoholic and increasingly famous author and radio talk show host. Spencer uses her fame in clever, key fashion to help draw events to a close. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away.)
There is something bitingly real and gritty—almost in a offhand way—about Spencer’s style. It’s a bit ungainly and awkward in spots but his present-tense prose makes us feel like we are inside the heads of real people. Compared to Ian McEwan or Richard Ford, Spencer’s style has a few more splinters. The sentences haven’t been sanded-down to a smooth finish. But they give Spencer’s characters a powerful point of view. When was the last time your day’s worth of thoughts and ideas flowed as smoothly as a central character from Big Novel? Spencer’s people live closer to where the rest of us do, where thoughts and actions lurch about, where thoughts are in bits and fragments. Spencer gives you that sensation, anyway.
That said, I liked “Man in the Woods” but it’s not my favorite Spencer novel. I haven’t read them all, but “Rich Man’s Table” and “Men in Black” were more satisfying. And I really enjoyed “Willing” (http://wp.me/plqD1-2S).
The problems with “Man in the Woods” start with plausibility. The reason Phillips is able to evade police suspicion for so long relies on many conveniences. I had a hard time with Kate’s reaction when Phillips finally reveals what he’s done. I thought Phillips would squirm and worry even more than he does, in thinking about whether he will (or should) pay a price. In fact, for us to like Phillips we have to think it’s just fine to walk away from a dead man. A man you killed. That it’s okay to walk away from violence and not take responsibility for it. The conversations between Phillips and his friend Lawson felt a bit too contrived. One chat even flashes the main theme of the book like a marquee on Broadway:
“Is that all?” Lawson says. He puts his arm over Paul’s shoulders. “Welcome to the world. And, by the way, welcome to America. I was just last night reading this story by D.H. Lawrence where he says the typical American is private, independent, and sort of a killer, in his heart.”
It’s easy to imagine Spencer spotting that line from Lawrence and dreaming up the novel on the spot. It’s a worthwhile theme and Spencer is an engaging writer. There will no doubt be controversy over the abrupt final moment, which would work well in one of those cut-to-black finishes of a film. If you don’t like the long wind-down of some novels, you’ll love this one.
“Man in the Woods” is thought-provoking and packs a punch, but it doesn’t quite have the power that it could.