Friday, December 03, 2010

Review: Man in the Woods

 When Paul Phillips was young, he spent time in Alaska and worked his way east to upstate New York, to follow a girl. Along the way he forgot about the girl but learned how to build things, and it seemed to suit him, and now he makes his living as a carpenter. He never wants to concern himself with money, so he always takes twice as long to do his work and never charges enough for his labor, which he pours into his creations. He loves wood, and it shows. Eventually he is hired by author Kate Ellis to work on her house. She falls in love with him, and Paul obligingly loves her back, along with her daughter Ruby.

One day, in his meandering way, Paul stops in a park in Tarrytown on his way back from the city, and comes across a man with a dog. The man inexplicably begins to beat the dog, and Paul intervenes. The man will not stop coming at Paul, who snaps, and ferociously pummels the guy until he is dead. Stunned, Paul scoops up the dog and brings him home.
What follows is the story of Paul and Kate and how their spiritual paths criss-cross. Kate has written a best-selling autobiography of overcoming alcohol AA-style, by finding Jesus, but when Paul tells her what he has done, Kate decides to protect him, and Jesus leaves her. Paul, having never thought much about religion, starts to do good works to atone for his sin and starts to feel God's plan in how it is turning out.

This turn of philosophy is the most interesting part of the book and gave me plenty to contemplate after I had finished. I found it hard to get into reading it, however. The first few chapters talk about the man whom Paul kills, from his point of view. Starting from that point of view felt like a false start to me. The same can be said for some other chapters taking place "off-screen" to Paul. While it might have helped the narrative along to know someone was actually trying to solve the murder of the man in the woods, it was not necessary to adopt the point of view of many of those involved.

In the end, therefore, I'm just a bit frustrated that the book's structure wasn't tighter, because it could have been fantastic instead of simply interesting. Kate Ellis is a wonderful, if stereotypical, character of the turn of the millennium (the book is set in late 1999 and early 2000), when 12-step groups were still big. She is smart and foul-mouthed all the while spouting folksy spiritual wisdom. How can you dislike someone who makes you laugh like that?

Kate Ellis made her first appearance in Spencer's Ship Made of Paper. This book finishing by answering the basic question of the book: will Paul get caught? But it does not supply an ending to the story, so perhaps we will see Kate, Ruby, and Paul again in the future.

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