The Heart's Most Urgent Commands: Scott Spencer Takes Dictation
He’s best known for Endless Love, a novel that immerses its readers in an intense, visceral meditation on first love, one much richer and more complex than either of the book's two film adaptations (the first, uniformly christened a disaster by critics, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and released in 1981; the second, directed by Shana Feste and released earlier this year, might be even more of a critical whipping boy.) Book critics, however, agree that Scott Spencer is a writer of singular fluency and sensitivity. As he was once described by Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker, “Like John Updike, Spencer is a poet-celebrant of Eros.”
Along with his breakthrough, two-million-copy bestseller Endless Love and the other accomplished nine novels he has written as Scott Spencer, he has begun to write brainy horror novels, 2011’s Breed, and, 2014's, Brood. both of them published under the pen name Chase Novak. The man can do it all, I have to think (but if not, it’s probable that he’d be a quick study.)
A Ship Made of Paper, published in 2003, was the first book of his that I read, and like Endless Love, it was a National Book Award finalist. Ship is a powerful novel about infidelity, race, longing, and most of all, the inherent, often irreconcilable conflict between one’s sense of duty and the desires that reside in one’s private heart. I had never read anything quite like it and soon began giving copies to friends, but for reasons I can’t pinpoint, except for one – my reading of this novel coincided with a time of deep personal turmoil – I didn’t seek out any of Spencer’s other books until a few weeks ago, almost eight years after I read A Ship Made Of Paper.
Looking at books online, I came upon Willing, published in 2008. This funny, melancholic, wildly smart novel is narrated by a jilted 37-year-old journalist, Avery Jankowsky, who, when offered the opportunity to take part in a high-end Nordic sex tour (the participants pay a gasp-worthy $135,000 for the, er, ten-day pleasure), manages to wrangle a lucrative book contract out of a New York publisher before he departs for the trip’s first of several trysting points, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Once I began reading it, I couldn’t put Willing aside, though not for the reasons you might expect. There is more talk of the implications of sexual desire, taboo or otherwise, than actual descriptions of characters en flagrante delicto. Spencer is most interested in character and in the peculiar responsibilities related to affluence, physical beauty, and the enormous variety of amorous choices on offer when we open the Pandora’s Box of the Internet. Spencer also writes with breathtaking lucidity about how people confront, and when possible, overcome disappointment and frustrated desire.
After all but inhaling Willing, I quickly proceeded to Men in Black, an earlier novel, published in 1995, with no relation to the films of the same title, although the first MIB film release occurred around the same time as Spencer’s book’s publication. Here, as in Willing, we meet a confiding and self-deprecating first-person narrator, Sam Holland, a novelist of early promise who, failing to earn enough to pay his family of four’s bills from the books he publishes in his own name, has had to resort to penning titles he doesn’t care about: An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Pro Football and Traveling with Your Pet.
When the novel opens, Holland has just written another of these books under the pseudonym John Retcliffe, Visitors from Above, which contains made-up information about aliens and UFO sightings. The book takes off with the help of a New York radio shock-jock and conspiracy theorists who find doomsday messages embedded in its arbitrary patterns. Holland can finally pay his bills, but his marriage is on the verge of collapse, and his teenage son has run away from home, having discovered that his father has not been a faithful husband.
I read up on Spencer’s life after finishing Men in Black, wanting some context for his genius. He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1945 and raised in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and also took classes at the University of Illinois and Roosevelt University for a time. There are frequent references to Chicago and the Midwest in Spencer’s novels, and Endless Love, still his most famous book, is set in Chicago. Waking the Dead (1986), also made into a film, a more successful one than either Endless Love adaptation, opens with the narrator learning that his girlfriend has been killed in Minneapolis by a car bomb. Today Spencer lives in upstate New York with his longtime girlfriend. He’s an avid tennis player and has two grown children.
What I love about Spencer’s books is that he doesn’t turn away when his characters are at their most distraught and abject. Instead, he sharpens his focus on their mournful faces, sometimes revealing a self-mocking smile. In addition to being a poet-celebrant of Eros like John Updike, Spencer resembles the older novelist in his nimble, comic exploration of human experience. I find a poignancy in Spencer’s books, however, that isn’t always as perceptible in Updike’s. While Updike frisks the human heart, Spencer pierces it with a quiver of exquisite arrows.
From Endless Love (copyright 1979, Alfred A. Knopf):
"When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved—I loved so deeply, and when the love was interrupted, when the incorporeal body of love shrank back in terror and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new could suffer so irrevocably. But now, years have passed and the night of August 12, 1967, still divides my life. It was a hot, dense Chicago night. There were no clouds, no stars, no moon. The lawns looked black and the trees looked blacker; the headlights of the cars made me think of those brave lights the miners wear, up and down the choking shaft. And on that thick and ordinary August night, I set fire to a house inside of which were the people I adored more than anyone else in the world, and whose home I valued more than the home of my parents. "Before I set fire to their house I was hidden on their big wooden semicircular porch, peering into their window. I was in a state of grief. It was the agitated, snarling grief of a boy whose long rapturous story has not been understood."
From Willing (copyright 2008, Ecco [a Harper Collins imprint]):
"I’ve already mentioned my brief early marriage. When it ended I was not even twenty-four years old, and I had to wonder if I was embarking on an emotional journey similar to my mother’s, fated to lunge from one matrimonial catastrophe to the next. I had beginner’s luck in my relationships and already had in my little neural notebook of romantic memories a dozen gorgeous commencements. Now as the only divorced twenty-four-year-old I knew, I was worried if courtship and a ferocious few months were all I was made for. Beginner’s luck is fine if you get the hell out of there before it runs out; if you don’t, it’s worse than having no luck at all. I became careful to keep my entanglements solely with women who were manifestly unsuited to long-term engagements: women who were already married, or who seemed only mildly interested in me, or who lived a time zone or two away, or, as I aged, who were too young for me, which brings me to my relationship with Deirdre Feigenbaum, the end of which began the adventures I am about to impart."
This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune's literary supplement, Printers Row Journal.