In Scott Spencer's "A Ship Made of Paper," a seemingly benign and befuddled, sweet and hapless 30-something white lawyer named Daniel Emerson is behind the wheel of a machine of destruction. Daniel has fled New York and a prosperous career after some black men push him down a flight of stairs. He and his girlfriend Kate and her daughter Ruby now live in Leyden, N.Y., the rural Hudson Valley town where Daniel grew up. Early on in the book, his stiff, cold parents inform him that they've decided to leave their estate to a raptor preserve rather than to Daniel, their only son. Meanwhile, Daniel's deep in the throes of obsession, circling around town, or arriving at a certain time at Ruby's preschool, to get a glimpse of Iris Davenport, the black, married mother of Ruby's playmate Nelson.
Spencer, the author of "Endless Love" and "Waking the Dead," is an enchanting writer. The steady, expanding intensity of his sentences do spellbinding justice to the misery and joy of romantic obsession. To Daniel, Iris represents the epitome of all his youthful dreams: "That phantom female, that ghostly girl, Darlin', Baby, all those creatures of his longing, all those spirits of love and desire whom he thought he had exorcised with the power of plain old common sense, put in their place at the back of the class by irony, experience, and practicality, they had survived after all, they had not been cast out, they had merely shrunk back, they had hibernated, and now they are awake, they are swirling around and around, and they have fused into a single woman."
The whole novel builds that way, and "A Ship Made of Paper" rocks with suspense and daring. Things happen in this book that make you want to clap Spencer on the back for having the distorted mind to write and the skill to pull off convincingly: Distraught lovers deliberately crash into parked cars, guns go off in the hands of curious 4-year-olds, a bizarre accident results in crippling disability, dangerous youths bust out of a juvenile home during a paralyzing snowstorm. Spencer brings to life the worst possible scenarios within an already frightful one -- the willful destruction of two families for the perhaps unavoidable pursuit of true love. Daniel and Iris' affair sets off a line of angry dominoes, but it's clearly Daniel who launches the disastrous procession. You can't help wondering: What will this guy do next? And you keep on reading.
Spencer's at his best when capturing small, chillingly accurate moments. Iris and Hampton, her miserable investment banker husband, maintain a "night language code" (as in "Are you tired?") for sex, an insightful detail that falls like a hammer. There are gentle hints that Daniel's fantasy is endangered. While trapped at Iris' house in a snowstorm, Daniel requests almond tea, which he's surreptitiously figured out that Iris buys. Her response? "I can't believe you like almond-flavored tea. To me, it tastes like arsenic or something. What is it, a guy thing? It's the only tea my husband will drink." During the most thrilling scene in the book, when Daniel and Iris find themselves in each other's arms during the storm, trees split and explode from the weight of snow and cold, in violent protest (or maybe in celebration?) of what's taking place inside.
Race, a little too obviously, overshadows the already clouded affair. The O.J. Simpson trial serves as a backdrop to the story, and Daniel's girlfriend Kate, a highstrung writer who's covering the trial and wants Simpson dead, uses it to make jabs at Daniel and his own interracial affair. Daniel seems to stick up for O.J., though it's obvious he's straining to stay open-minded, and much more so for his own sake than for that of the disgraced football star. Daniel, while haunted by his scary encounter in New York, loves and envies the supposed comfy-cozy warmth of black folks in contrast to his tight-ass parents. But by the novel's disappointing last hurrah, Spencer's clever nuances about race have devolved into cliché.
It's cringe-inducing when, during a conversation with a young black student who's urging Iris (a graduate student) to join the Black Student Alliance, the disgruntled Iris replies, "What if my friend Daniel wanted to join your club?" It's downhill from there; Daniel seizes an embarrassing chance to preach his racial gospel after a trio of masked kids hold up an all-white bar and one of the patrons claims he glimpsed black skin.
Daniel is typically delusional and melodramatic about crossing color lines. "History in one corner and Love in the other?" he thinks. "Fine. Ring the bell. Let the fight begin. Love, he thinks, will bring history to its knees." What's striking about that sentence is that it implies that Daniel, or maybe Spencer, actually believes that Daniel and Iris are the first ones to try out this whole race-mixing thing. And in the end, reality -- things like kids, money and chance -- proves a more treacherous foe than history. After Spencer's characters lie split in two like the trees littering the town, the intensity and all-consuming quality of Iris and Daniel's love affair amounts to little more than what sounds like some admittedly mind-blowing sex in covert places, an hour or so of bliss in a parked car where they let it all out with the innocence and blindness of teenagers.
The destroyed (but, he insists, happy!) Daniel finds refuge at a local restaurant amply populated by adulterers -- they're the patrons Daniel notices, anyway. Spencer seems less to be acknowledging that many people have affairs than implying that those who do are part of a secret society. Men commiserate with each other over their wayward hearts. Women forgive them and ask them to come home. Even after all the true devastation, after lives fall apart, after near-death experiences, bad accidents, and all those dead trees, Daniel's fantasy persists, and even the fantasy isn't pretty.
But it's exactly that -- Spencer's own excess -- that eventually weighs down "A Ship Made of Paper." What starts out as a finely tuned novel of human impulses turns into one where Daniel twice imagines himself floating over town, as a sort of superhero, all-seeing and all-knowing: "The first couple of times he became airborne, he expended absurd amounts of effort moving around, or just staying aloft. He would thrust his arms in front of him because this is how Superman made himself aerodynamic ..." It's in his hokey attempts to create a protagonist rich enough for his intricate story that Spencer trips up: Daniel's not some lover-hero, he's not breaking down fresh racial barriers, and for all his idealism and heartbreak he's not a particularly sympathetic character. Or an infuriating one, for that matter. He's a shapeless guy, messed up in the head like everyone else, and ultimately, it's hard to really care what happens to him.