Man in the Woods
Scott Spencer
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Buy *Man in the Woods* by Scott Spencer online

Man in the Woods
Scott Spencer
320 pages
September 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Paul Phillips lives with Kate Ellis and Kate’s nine-year-old daughter, Ruby. Kate has become famous from hawking her bestselling book Prays Well with Others; Paul works as a carpenter and is always finding time to remodel the homes of Kate’s high-end clients. Everything about their life feels a bit serendipitous, from Kate’s newfound sobriety (a result of her newfound Christian beliefs) to Paul’s perpetual reliance on luck to get whatever he wants. Still, both are thankful that Kate’s fresh fortune has given them an exuberant and comfortable life in Kate’s newly purchased multi-million dollar home in suburban Tarrytown.

Paul is a nice enough guy who views the world from a unique and happy perspective, but when he encounters Will Jaff - a lonely, disconsolate drifter in a woodsy area off Martingham State Park - his affable and kindly disposition takes a brutal hit. Plunged into a dark ocean of violence, Paul hasn’t a clue and doesn't particularly care that Jaff is on the run from a large gambling debt and that he’s had a run of bad luck back home in Los Angeles.

There's a chaotic spray of punches, a dog scrambling in fear; Paul, cold and angry, punishes Jaff with a real blow. The aftermath becomes a fevered morass where Paul is forced to ask himself “How can this be happening?” Almost overnight, Paul life’s becomes “like a coin that has been flipped.”

Kate is beginning to have a crisis of her own, her particular brand of Christianity now sitting strained and uneasy. As Kate tours the spiritual book publicity circuit, she’s distracted by her love and passionate sexual attraction for Paul. Obviously, Kate has bought order to both their lives, yet neither party is prepared for the terrible aftermath of the violence in Martingham State Park. To cope, Paul deludes himself while pulled between terror, relief, and remorse. Kate however, refuses to accept their fate.

As Paul and Kate attempt to navigate a new and much scarier reality, Spencer balances his haunting story with secrets of love. Only love can carry you along with all of its pleasures - sky, music, touch, food, and wine. On the last night of the 20th-century with the potential perils of Y2K looming, Kate’s house is ablaze with silvery light, silhouettes bowing and dancing and playing “like figures in a shadow play.” But not even Kate's mirth-filled New Year celebration can repair the quivering sense of doom that reverberates around Paul's broken psyche.

As Paul transforms into the vehicle for the author's haunting exploration of good and evil, thirsting for absolution, Kate knows that one day she will lose him. Even Ruby cannot escape unscathed. There are, of course, other characters: Frank Mazzerelli, a former Yonkers police officer who sees the picture of Will Jaff in the local paper; Paul’s sister, Annabelle; and Bernard, Annabelle's kindly Lebanese boyfriend. Yet it's Shep, Paul’s adorable dog, providing the vital link, his imploring stare intuiting a wave of melancholy through Paul as this formerly happy man comes to the stark realization that his ideal life with Kate and Ruby will someday be gone.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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