Reading Scott Spencer’s work is an adventure in negative capability—an opportunity to fall, or dive, into a deeper world beyond good and evil, reason and faith, will and fate. The love, and acceptance he feels for his characters is endless, though not without a deep understanding of the many flaws— narcissism, inconstancy, faithlessness, greed—that flesh is heir to.
His latest novel, An Ocean Without A Shore (341 pages; Ecco Press), is a sequel of sorts to River Under the Road (2017), which took a hard look at the multiple misfortunes of Thaddeus Kaufman, a struggling novelist and screenwriter manqué, living an outwardly enviable life in upper Hudson Valley, with his artist wife, Grace Cornell.
The new novel is told through the point of view of Kip Woods, a financial adviser who has been Thaddeus’ best friend since college, though Kaufman seems oblivious to the fact that Kip, in the closet to all but a few, has a burning, decades-long crush on him.
It might seem like a stretch for a straight author, but Spencer’s commitment to his tale, and the lives he depicts, is so absolute that you never feel the strain.
And as much as it’s a statement on hopelessness, self-flagellating pain, and the interstices within which we (often purposefully) misunderstand each other, it also addresses questions of class—both economically, and in the vernacular way in it is applied to character—which has also been a subtheme of Spencer’s work. (His underappreciated 1986 novel, Waking the Dead, for instance, depicts the relationship between a liberal Chicago lawyer/politician and his girlfriend, an activist who is killed—or is she?—by a terrorist car bomb in retaliation for her work on behalf of Chilean refugees.)
An Ocean Without A Shore’s epigraph quotes Simone Weil:
Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate…It easily manages to outweigh all other motives because the effort it demands is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and simple as a row of figures.
Or is it?
Always get the last word.
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Thaddeus is constantly flummoxed by the financial demands of maintaining his sprawling home in Orkney, named, pretentiously, for Sir Walter Scott’s visit to the Scottish islands. (Then again, what counts for pretension in a home that sports two cats named “Marcel’’ and “Marceau’’?)
Broke and struggling to keep the property, which is deeply important to his image and his sense, however mistaken, of keeping his marriage together, Thaddeus goes to the well, more than once, for help from his relatively well-heeled friend. On the first round, Kip offers to buy some of the property, though he has no intention of living there, then later offers him an insider trading tip though it violates his scruples.
All’s fair in love and economics, though for Kip, who yearns for Thaddeus with the burning passion of Gatsby for Daisy Buchanan. But money changes everything.
With her husband’s career flagging, Grace’s long-dormant artistic path begins to thrive.
As she confides to Kip, staying at his Greenwich Village pad after an alcohol-infused gallery dinner in Soho:
“You know…when no one paid the slightest attention to what I did in the studio, I thought of the pieces as having infinite value. No one was offering a hundred dollars for one of them, so I could imagine them being worth a million. But now they’re in the realm of reality, money reality. Do you understand? Of course you do, you of all people.”
Like some passive-aggressive character out of Henry James, Kip is left wondering why Grace is bragging about her career but avoiding his questions about her affair with Jennings Stratton, a Lady Chatterley’s Lover-type worker to whom Thaddeus has previously bequeathed free land on their property.
When Kip visits the land he’s about to acquire, Stratton subtly patronizes, and diminishes him:
“So pretty soon this land belongs to you,’’ he said. “But you should know—it won’t really be yours. No one owns land.’’
After Kip reminds him that legally, this is not the case, he gets a Pink Floyd-like response:
“Money money money money money money money,” he said, his voice getting quieter and softer, his head shaking back and forth.
As Kip takes the train up the Hudson to visit his friend and love-object, he knows he’s entering another world:
Little river towns, man not touched yet by real estate speculators. Junked cars, Irish saloons, cluttered yards, chained dogs. Normal life. I felt like a ghost longing to be corporeal.
He reflects on his post Stonewall decision to keep his sexuality—largely confined to escort services, and a random encounter with a stranger during a business trip to Amsterdam—to himself:
Not everyone can be a hero; if everyone was heroic, then heroism would be nothing but doing what was expected and we would have no actual heroes.’
Again, we hear echoes of James’ conflicted narrators.
And the repressed always return.
No spoilers here, but the confluence of sexual need, long-buried anger, and the disparity between the emotionally needy narrator and his carelessly insensitive friend recall some of the themes unforgettably captured in Endless Love. That book’s incandescent romanticism has been replaced by the wisdom, and fatalism, of age and experience.
But the author’s ardent, troubled, obsessions, still resonate.
“On the good days, I felt like a shipwrecked man spotting the signs of some nearing but still invisible shore: a taste in the wind, a softness in the light, a sudden passage of gulls,’’ David Axelrod, the agonized narrator of the earlier work reflects at the end of his odyssey—mourning, but never regretting his lost love.
Kip Woods’ fate is even sadder:
I have learned one of the lessons of loneliness, one of its shocking side-effects: when you are in a state of longing, desire goes on and on, like an ocean without a shore.
As the tide goes out, we are left with our own turbulent, incalculable emotions, a psychological landscape to which Scott Spencer demonstrates, once again, he is uniquely attuned.