Scott Spencer’s ardent third novel, ”Endless Love,” featured sex-besotted 17-year-old David Axelrod coming to grips with his self-destructive passion for the enticing 16-year-old Jade Butterfield; its rich writing caused a sensation when it was published in 1979. Spencer’s arresting but flawed eighth book, A Ship Made of Paper, centers on 36-year-old Daniel Emerson becoming obsessed with — and unraveled by — Iris Davenport, a captivating married mom. Though not literally a sequel (David never got beyond high school, while Daniel has a Columbia University law degree), ”A Ship Made of Paper” is a psychological successor to Endless Love. Hormone-high teenagers slipping around on their parents to risk all for love have morphed into parents hiding out from their own preschool children to relish ”the grim geometry of infidelity.”
The geometry here involves two couples. Iris and Hampton are married with a 4-year-old son, Nelson. Kate and Daniel are live-in lovers. No matter that Ruby, Kate’s 4-year-old daughter, is from an earlier marriage. It is Daniel, believing with ”fervency” in parental love, who acts as Ruby’s dad, and spends more time nurturing her than Kate does. He even drives her to the day-care center every morning, where she meets up with her best buddy, Nelson (who is dropped off by Iris).
Spencer is a savvy cartographer of America’s cultural landscape. That romance blooms between Daniel and Iris in the car-pool line is the kind of touch, insightful and cynical, that marks this novel’s tone. When a book introduces a place of innocence called My Little Wooden Shoe, as the day-care center in question is dubbed, one can bet there will be somebody dropping off his kid, about to drive through the looking glass of destructive passion.
Were ”A Ship Made of Paper” only about adultery — Daniel and Iris are soon devouring each other in Iris’ house during a blizzard, in Daniel’s law office, at a cheap motel — the novel would be a notable addition to that melancholy literature of classy couples cheating on their partners in New York’s exurban villages. But Spencer adds varying degrees of pigmentation to Updike country. Daniel is a white man who fled Manhattan — and brought Kate with him — when he admitted, after a traumatic incident, that he was ”afraid of black people.”
Iris and Hampton are black.
Heightening the polarity, Spencer sets his domestic drama against the backdrop of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. When Kate, a novelist who’s churning out O.J. columns for magazines, jealously admits to a confidante that she feels like ”O.J.-ing” Iris, her words capture the harsh tenor of the times.
It is ironic, of course, to have the O.J. trial on TV as Daniel and Iris burn through their illicit romance while Kate and Hampton agonize over being left out in the cold. Plot twists and character distinctions that play off racial themes, however inventive, pile up conspicuously. Daniel grooves on Ray Charles, while Iris likes Fleetwood Mac. Daniel left the the big city fearing black people, but lusts over pictures of Afreaka and Downtown Sugar Brown at the porno magazine rack. Iris and Daniel meet up during a party at an estate, and feel staggered by desire in the cellar that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Kate and Daniel seek out a couples therapist, where Kate, who believes that Daniel has ”always wanted to be black,” will confront him about his affair with Iris. The therapist is black.
Spencer is brilliant at limning the hearts and minds of his characters, black and white, male and female, but sometimes the narrative bends in service to its overt themes. He gives surprisingly short shrift to Iris, the pivot of his story. We are 90 pages into the novel before we see the world through her eyes, and we return to her perspective only sporadically. Even as their affair ignites, Daniel admits to finding her ”opaque… exotic, and unknown.” She is a good mom, an inquisitive graduate student, and a woman who feels guilt-wracked at making reliable Hampton an unwitting cuckold. Her opacity, though, continues throughout the book, as though she can never quite be free of Daniel’s fantasy image of her: ”The danger is, of course, an aphrodisiac — an Afro-disiac, Daniel thinks, but does not say it. Iris has made it clear that she is not going to be his Black Girlfriend.”
As the passion of ”A Ship Made of Paper” invites ultimate ruin, with black-white themes the dangerous shoals Spencer sets down at every possible turn, it is the author’s searching and propulsive prose that keeps the craft on its heartbreaking course. David Axelrod, still grieving over his own endless love, would probably understand.