Walking through the woods, it’s step by step, one foot in front of the other. What could be more fundamental? It’s like breathing – inhale through the nostrils, exhale through the mouth, the taste and tickle of your own morality coursing over your lips like running water over stones. We are under a sea of air, to which we have adapted just as fish have adapted to their life underwater.
A walk in the woods is like wading through a river, you can’t walk in the same woods twice no matter how you may try. You can trace the same path and at the same pace and at the same time of day, you can measure your steps so that Tuesday’s walk matches Monday’s as close as possible, but no matter what, the walk will be singular and unique. Leaves will have fallen since your last time here, pinecones, acorns, berries, shit, a beer can, a candy wrapper. Procreation will have taken place, pursuit, death, shoats will have been eaten, roots will have grown deeper. Decay and regeneration are a wheel that will not stop turning, even now, autumn by the calendar, winter by the bone, the gray wash winter sky, the liquefying leaves underfoot. Even now the wheel turns, slower than in the warmer months but with a black grandeur. (pgs. 80-81)
Scott Spencer is a well respected author with several works to his name but I had never heard of him until September and I read several reviews of his latest work – A Man in the Woods. The newspaper reviews were all very complimentary with the Washington Post saying it has “shrewd plotting, strong characters, and gorgeous writing” (September 20, 2010). So after reading this and some blog reviews, I placed a library hold on the novel. And did I mention, I fell in love with the cover.
Paul Phillips is a “good, old-fashioned man”, a wanderer and established woodworking artist. He has settled in one place and found a life with Kate Ellis (who appears in Spencer’s earlier novel A Ship Made of Paper) and her eight year-old daughter. Kate is now a recovering alcoholic, Christian, writer and radio host. Kate and Paul live in a small town in New York. Paul is on his way home from New York City when he stops at a state park to take a walk in the woods. Paul encounters a man abusing a dog and takes issue, there is a fight, and the man dies with Paul leaving the scene.
After this opening I can see this book going one of two ways, a procedural or a “Crime and Punishment” type of examination of what a bad deed does to a good person. I was hoping for the latter and I think that was what Spencer was going for although there is an ex-policeman bent on solving the crime. Unfortunately the book fell flat for me. We do see Paul struggling with his actions and trying to prove his own morality to himself. We also see Kate dealing with the aftermath and trying to keep her world together. Unfortunately it all rang a little hollow to me despite some strong writing in some of the descriptive sections. I struggled to finish this book and when I got to the end, I felt somewhat unsatisfied. Some of the plot lines seem almost like afterthoughts and the author committed one of my pet peeves – sex scenes that don’t advance the plot. The depth of a relationship does not necessarily need to be shown by the ferocity of a couple’s sex life. Those are just my thoughts – enough other readers have seen a different book so for an alternative point of view – check out the following reviews: