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Racism and adultery drive Spencer’s novel

bookDaniel Emerson is afraid of black people. After a chance encounter with a group of violent African American teenagers left him with a broken wrist, a chipped tooth and an abiding belief that he is going to be killed by either one of his clients or a crack addict, the young lawyer persuades Kate, his current helpmate, to sacrifice the advantages of the big city for the pastoral peace of his hometown, Leyden.

Their move quickly demonstrates that his earnings will be drastically reduced, but for a while, he luxuriates in a small town’s advantages. They enroll Ruby, Kate’s daughter by a previous marriage, in the local childcare center (The Wooden Shoe) and become active in the surprisingly vibrant social life of Leyden. Daniel, however, still crosses the street when he sees suspicious African Americans approaching.

Kate, a successful journalist, takes the move to Leyden in stride and, although she retains a barbed wit about the bucolic natives, she seems to thrive. Other than the fact that she drinks too much and has a strange preoccupation with the O. J. Simpson case, she quickly makes friends and is soon firing off a series of in-depth articles on the implications of O.J.’s trial. “We all know he is guilty,” she tells her friends. “Why is the Afro-American community participating in this judicial farce by claiming that he is innocent?” Kate lavishes love on feisty little Ruby and spends much of her free time with her.

Which brings us another couple: an African-American couple, Hampton and Iris Davenport. Hampton is a successful financier who spends much of his time away from home. Iris, sensual and soft-spoken, is working on her thesis in a nearby college. The Davenports have a son, Nelson, who is the same age as Ruby and enrolled at The Wooden Shoe where he has developed a reputation for angry tantrums. Eventually, he becomes Ruby’s “best friend,” and so the two couples finally meet. They attend a production of “The Messiah” together and end up in a local restaurant where things begins to go awry. Hampton turns out to be arrogant, condescending and constantly on the lookout for racial abuse. Kate takes a delight in making comments that infuriate him and this belated social outing is a disaster ... except for one thing. Daniel has fallen in love with Iris.

A Ship Made of Paper is a journey through the painful and heedless world of infidelity. Scott Spencer views his characters with a strange blend of compassion and contempt, alternating between sympathy for their dilemma and amusement at their foolishness. In terms of plot, all we need is a series of fateful events that bring the “lovers-to-be” together. The weather obliges and a crippling snowstorm leaves Daniel trapped at Iris’ house while Hampton is away at his city apartment. The power lines are down, the heat is off and the benighted Daniel finds his fateful way to Iris Davenport’s bed.

There is much here that reminds me of the “Courtly Love Tradition” in medieval literature in which both lovers behave according to the dictates of a prescribed ritual. The male yearns for his lover with an intensity that is painful. Indeed, if he does not gain the sexual favors of the beloved, he may die. Daniel often seems to be on the brink of suicide. However, Spencer’s lovers are never satisfied. Their awesome sexual encounters are remarkable both in terms of variety and duration, yet within days they are again plotting meetings in cheap hotels, abandoned buildings and their own homes. Exposure is inevitable and when it comes, the lives of innocent folks are affected.  The lives of friends, Daniel’s parents, neighbors and even Layden’s citizens are changed. In fact, this adulterous affair is like a virus that subtly changes the life style of an entire town.

Thankfully, there are other interests in A Ship Made of Paper, including a delightful episode involving a blind African American woman who continues to live in the decaying mansion that was once staffed with slaves. Now, the ancient site is about to be converted into an historic site.

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There is a delightful scene in which, during a record snow, the blind lady becomes lost in the storm, and the wealthy guests who are involved in raising money for the “historic site” are forced to search for her. The estate is massive, and they are armed with Roman candles, which they are told to fire into the sky when they find the blind (and demented) woman. Among the searchers are

Daniel and Hampton ... two men who despise each other. The outcome of this doomed search should be the final event in this story of doomed lust, but it isn’t. Like some mythical beast that has been tortured, mangled and hacked beyond recognition, Daniel and Iris continue to search for opportunities to see each other. The reader may be haunted by images of the aging couple after decades have passed, still tottering off to yet another assignation.

Scott Spencer’s greatest gift as a writer is undoubtedly his skill in creating images and a delightfully fresh and poetic narrative. Occasionally, he allows his characters to dream, and some of the most pleasing episodes involve the citizens of Leyden who float at night over the town, observing their loved ones (Daniel and Iris are not the only adulterous couples in Leyden), and as Daniel floats among them, he realizes that they are all bound together by guilt and passion.

Throughout the novel,Spencer occasionally releases random events that invariably collide with the lives of Leyden’s citizenry. When a snowstorm knocks the power out of a juvenile detention facility rendering the electric fence harmless, a half-dozen inmates escape and roam through the town, breaking into houses and disturbing the tranquility of the citizens. Their presence is definitely disturbing to poor Daniel since the escaped prisoners represent the very threat that he came home to avoid. They seem to be drawing closer to Daniel’s world throughout the novel and even end up robbing a local nightspot where Daniel and his friends are eating. Despite John Prine’s advice to the world: “move to the country and try to find Jesus on your own,” maybe Daniel should go back to New York and live in a “gated community.” That will work — until the power goes out in a storm.

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer. HarperCollins. 368 pages.

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