On Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer
Sometimes it’s really important to read a book that someone you barely know highly recommends. I really don’t think I ever would have found Man in the Woods had it not been thrown out there as the best book she read this year by a woman I have never met but with whom I share a ListServ. The older we get the smaller our world becomes through perfected self-selection: of the friends we choose, the foods we eat, the clothes we wear. We watch the same TV channel for news, go to the same nail salon, work out in the same gym. While I never really thought about it before, the same can be said of what we read. Diane, the proprietress of Diane’s Books, knows exactly which books I will like so everyone in my family goes to her when my birthday rolls around. This proves I must like the same type of book, although the books I read cross all conventional lines of genre, author, etc.
While reading Man in the Woods, I was grappling with whether or not this is a spiritual book. Paul, a good man, accidentally kills Will, a bad human being, during a chance encounter in a park. The altercation begins over a dog that Will has both stolen and abuses, so Paul’s killing is immediately part of a moral question: Good Man + Defenseless Abused Animal >= Bad Person?
Paul lives with Kate. She is making millions off her book Prays Well with Others. Kate adores Paul, although we see glimpses of her resentment of him since she makes all the money. Paul doesn’t seem to have a problem with Kate paying the bills, but he doesn’t like it one bit that she always corrects him. She’s got the brains and he the brawn.
Paul and Kate are basically good people who are covering up Paul’s murder in the woods. Kate has a daughter, Ruby, with psychological problems, Paul’s sister gets in a car wreck, and even Shep, the dog Paul saves and then calls his own, gets Lyme disease. Kate is a recovering alcoholic who credits her success to God. In fact, they all believe in a higher power. Kate believes if she loses her faith her world will fall apart, Paul believes if he loses his dog his world will fall apart, and Ruby thinks that the gold cross she gave to Paul’s sister to protect her actually caused the car wreck. Kate doesn’t like dogs very much but, at one point in the book, she makes a point of noticing that D-O-G is a reversal of G-O-D. This was not an observation made, if you will, in vain.
Publisher’s Weekly also praised Man in the Woods as one of the ten best books of 2010. I really enjoyed reading it. The story is wonderfully written, the characters are drawn well, I could smell, taste and feel everything. But I couldn’t help feeling I was being manipulated. In fact, I always feel manipulated when fiction writers and politicians use God as an excuse for not taking full responsibility for actions. By the end of the book, Kate loses her faith, Paul loses his dog, and the world does fall apart. The ending makes me wonder if Scott Spencer infused his novel with spirituality to show that it is just the crutch that keeps human beings from falling into the abyss of randomness that is, in fact, the reality of human existence.