Book #1 (January 10, 2011}: Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer
Book #2 (January 25, 2011): Willing by Scott Spencer
Twenty years ago, give or take half a decade, I read Scott Spencer’s Endless Love and was blown away. It was beautifully written, ingenious and once I’d picked it up I was unable to stop reading. It really didn’t deserve to have a banal Lionel Ritchie song written about it. (The song, of course, was for the Zeffirelli film version with Brooke Shields.)
It was about obsessive love and was probably about as good a novel as will ever be written on the subject, Gone With the Wind not excepted. Spencer’s ingenious notion was that while such endless love was the simplest explanation for the protagonist’s bizarre behavior, nobody but the protagonist himself could accept this. The other characters, including the object of the protagonist’s affections, weave ever more complicated (and always completely wrong) theories for his actions and hold to them with smug conviction. It’s a delightful, quirky and compelling book.
I always meant to read more by Spencer but, except for keeping a copy of Waking the Dead on my shelf for many years, never did anything about it. Now, however, just about everything Spencer has written seems to be available in e-book editions and I purchased the two titles above in Epub format from Google Books. Are they as good as Endless Love? No, but few books are. Are they good by more realistic standards? Yes, with qualifications.
Man in the Woods, the first I read, turned out to be a sequel to an earlier Spencer novel, A Ship Made of Paper, though I didn’t realize this until I was halfway through. It’s well written and has a startling climax that doesn’t become obvious until about halfway through the final sentence, but I didn’t find myself as caught up in it as I would have liked. The previous book was apparently about a woman who discovers religion and becomes a successful writer of self-help books for the faithful. This one focuses more on the man she’s chosen to live with, a rugged carpenter from New Hampshire or Connecticut who finds his life irrevocably altered by an unexpected (and, frankly, rather improbable) act of violence. Religion and God are constant presences in the book, which left me at times uncomfortable. I’ll allow religion as reasonable subject matter for fiction; it’s part of the human condition, after all. But I don’t like the sense that an author is either (a) proselytizing me or (b) assuming that I simply agree with him that God runs the universe. About halfway through the novel, the female character argues that it’s really stupid for intelligent people to reject belief in God, a notion so ridiculously counterintuitive that it made me a little angry. But Spencer puts the words in a character’s mouth rather than his own, so I’ll give him a pass on it. The ultimate point of the novel is that God works in mysterious ways and that sinners really do pay for their crimes in the end. (If there’s a film version, it should play on a double bill with Crimes and Misdemeanors as point and counterpoint.) I’ll give Spencer credit for making this point both cleverly and elegantly, even while I wonder exactly what he was smoking.
Willing is a better novel, much better. It’s funny, full of sharp observations, and kept me glued to the page for much of its length, though not quite with the adhesive power of Endless Love. It’s about a fortyish writer who, through a haphazard series of events, finds himself on an organized sex tour of northern Europe, where, um, willing young women are provided for him and other participants, with mixed results. The book is about the collision between the writer’s rather firm ideas about morality and the reality of his own libido. The ending manages to be disapproving of the whole enterprise without becoming cloyingly moralistic. And there’s sex in the book, explicit and prurient enough to be interesting and a little arousing without spilling over into pornography. I enjoyed the book, though the prudish might want to skip directly to the end.