Spencer, Scott 1945–
Spencer, Scott 1945–
PERSONAL: Born September 1, 1945, in Washington, DC; son of Charles (a steelworker and union organizer) and Jean (Novick) Spencer; married Claire Joubert Dupuy, January 24, 1979; children: Celeste, Asher. Education: University of Wisconsin—Madison, B.A., 1969; attended University of Illinois.
ADDRESSES: Home—Rhinebeck, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Writer. Worked variously in an employment agency and as an evaluator for federal education programs.
MEMBER: PEN American Center (member of executive board, 1979–85; member of Freedom to Write Committee), Authors Guild, National Writers Union (member of executive board, 1986–92).
AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Award nominations, Before Columbus Foundation, 1981, for Endless Love, and 2003, for A Ship Made of Paper.
Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1973.
Preservation Hall, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
Endless Love, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
Waking the Dead, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
The Magic Room, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1987.
Secret Anniversaries, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
Men in Black, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
The Rich Man's Table, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
A Ship Made of Paper, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Act of Vengeance (screenplay), Home Box Office (HBO), 1985.
Contributor of stories and articles to periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, Film Comment, Ladies' Home Journal, New York Times Book Review, Redbook, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.
ADAPTATIONS: Endless Love was adapted for film by Judith Rascoe and released by Universal, 1981.
SIDELIGHTS: Noted for the intensity of his prose and his acute understanding of character and situation, Scott Spencer first received widespread critical attention and popularity following the publication of his third novel, Endless Love. Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, a contributor stated that "Spencer has said … he writes one book at a time; so, while his books do have elements in common, most notably characters whose desires place them in opposition to society, each is unique." The plot and subject matter for Spencer's first novel, Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball, for instance, is a far cry from the story in Endless Love. Told in the form of a journal, Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball centers on Paul Galambos, a psychology professor who takes a job with NESTER—a secret company that hopes to use brain implants to control people's desires. Growing dissatisfaction with his employers leads Paul to begin keeping a journal with which he hopes to expose NESTER. Eventually Paul escapes from the company's complex but is returned after being captured. On the day Paul's supervisor releases him from his contract, he informs Paul that his work for NESTER was part of a plan to rehabilitate him, that he was a danger to society, and that all his experiments were fake. The supervisor then cuts off Paul's hand.
"Like Paul Galambos," Mullen wrote, "the main character in Preservation Hall, Virgil Morgan, is not sure who he is or what his place in the world is, and to learn these things, he must pay a price for them." The main action of the novel takes place at a secluded country house in Maine, where Virgil and his wife are spending the New Year's holiday with Virgil's stepbrother and his stepbrother's girlfriend. While destroying a dresser they plan to burn in the fireplace, Virgil, who despises his father, kills his stepbrother. Mullen stated that Virgil's uncertainty over the extent to which his stepbrother's death was accidental forces him "to come to terms with what is good and bad in himself … [and] to reevaluate his relationship with his father in an attempt to expiate the guilt he still feels about killing his stepbrother." In a review for the New York Times Book Review, Katha Pollitt commented positively on Spencer's characterization of Virgil and his father Earl. "It's a mark of Spencer's skill that although we hear the whole story from Virgil's point of view, ultimately Earl's resentment of his son's success seems less mean-spirited than Virgil's shame at his father's failure…. Spencer deserves a good deal of praise for having the imagination to know more about his characters than they do themselves."
Spencer also created such complex characterizations in his next novel, Endless Love. Set in the 1960s, Endless Love traces the relationship of seventeen-year-old David Axelrod, sixteen-year-old Jade Butterfield, and her pot-smoking, permissive parents. David cherishes the Butterfields' laissez-faire lifestyle and leaves his own parents to live with Jade's family. Although Mr. and Mrs. Butterfield encourage David, who develops an obsessive love for Jade, to sleep with their daughter, they eventually deem the young couple's relationship too intense and banish David from the house, forbidding him to return for thirty days. In his desperation to see the family, David ignites the Butterfields' newspaper on their porch, hoping the small fire will bring the family out of the house where he can see them. The fire, however, rages out of control, and David must rescue the Butterfields from the blazing structure. As punishment for starting the fire, David is sent to a private mental institution for three years, during which time the Butterfield family deteriorates, beginning with the divorce of Jade's parents. After his release from the hospital, David tries to rekindle his relationship with Jade and reunite the Butterfield family, but all his efforts prove futile.
Critics claimed that Spencer's book is not concerned so much with the actions of its characters as with the psychological conflicts underlying their actions. Edward Rothstein, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "Mr. Spencer has an acute grasp of character and situation. He gives us details that make these often tormented people uncommonly convincing. There are the erotic ties within the Butterfield family that are threatened by David's intrusion; the absence of such ties in his own parents; his mother's confused pain at his obsession; his father's active interest in it."
Rothstein considered David the "true heart of the book," and stated: "He tells his story with such ardent conviction that we begin to share his obsession. He constantly surprises us, too, because he takes himself by surprise…. But the world in this novel is as unpredictable as David, and just as threatening; unexpected encounters, sudden partings, deaths and punishments assault him. They beset us as well, for we are in the grip of an expert storyteller." Summarizing the book's appeal, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt stated in the New York Times: "If you've ever been wildly and impractically in love, you won't stop to look at it objectively. You'll soar and sink with David, and ache for him…. Reading Mr. Spencer's novel, you'll remember for a while when it seemed possible to die of love."
Obsessive love is also a theme in Spencer's next work, Waking the Dead. The story centers on Fielding Pierce, a lawyer who loses his girlfriend, Sarah Williams, to a violent act of terrorism. After Fielding has apparently put his life back together and embarked on a promising political career, he begins to imagine that his dead girlfriend has come back to life. His obsession with recapturing his lost love threatens his stability and his nomination as a Congressional candidate.
Critical response to the novel was not as positive as for his previous books. A reviewer in the New Yorker observed that while Spencer is sometimes "excessive" and has moments of "uncomfortable sentimentality," he is also "a writer of great intensity, of imagery in the Graham Greene manner." For other critics, the novel lacked a narrative coherence that ultimately proves crippling. According to Judith Levine in the Village Voice, the trouble starts with the death of Sarah, a left-wing activist from a wealthy family who becomes embroiled in Chilean politics. "The violent event around which much of the action, including Fielding's advancing madness, turns is not all that believable," Levine argued. The reviewer also noted some inconsistencies in how Spencer develops his characters and wondered whether Fielding is meant to be seen as a "a true man of the people," "a naive puppet of the powers that be," or "a self-serving creep using them." Similarly, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote: "Given Fielding's calculating nature, we never completely believe in his love for Sarah," and the story's tragic end "seems so arbitrary and unnecessary." Kakutani also noted that the evocative and lyrical prose that marked the speech of Endless Love's teenaged hero becomes awkward and embarrassing for the middle-aged Fielding. "We often have the feeling that Fielding is giving a campaign speech," she commented.
Spencer's next work, Secret Anniversaries, pivots on a bold young girl named Caitlin. The action begins in the 1930s, when Caitlin is forced to leave her quiet hometown in rural upstate New York after her employers find her in bed with their son. Caitlin moves to Washington, DC, where she begins working for a pro-German, isolationist Congressman who wants to keep the United States out of World War II. Caitlin's sympathies are torn between loyalty to her boss and love for an investigative reporter who is working to uncover pro-Fascist sympathizers in the government. The culmination of Caitlin's political consciousness, which includes exposure to 1960s radicalism in New York City's Greenwich Village and work for the World Refugee Alliance following World War II, reaches its apogee when she visits the enshrined home of Anne Frank in Amsterdam. "Secret Anniversaries is a strange novel, layered, cleverly woven," commented Carol Muske in the New York Times Book Review. In a review for the New York Times, Kakutani wrote that Caitlin is "a finely observed portrait of a woman … who has lived most of her life on the margins of conventionality." However, Kakutani lamented, Secret Anniversaries places its heroine in "such a crudely drawn cartoon world of political villains that it manages to almost completely ruin the reader's sense of credulity."
A lighter tone prevails in Spencer's next work, Men in Black, which probes the troubled life of Sam Holland, a serious writer whose literary works have failed to gain a following. Responding to pressure to finally make some money, he gives up his calling and moves to a small rural town to write popular nonfiction on such topics as traveling with a pet and avoiding the hazards of too much salt. To Sam's astonishment, his book on UFOs brings him enormous success and catapults him to the national stage. While his career soars, his family life heads in a downward spiral. His wife finds out that he has a lover, while his son runs away from home and becomes a criminal. Sam also learns that his pseudonym matches the name of an anti-Semitic extremist, whose followers flock to Sam's nationwide book tour.
"Sam's experiences on the road [doing a book tour] are uncommonly hilarious and terrifying, handled with tremendous verve," observed Elaine Kendall in the Los Angeles Times. Robert Chatain stated in the Tribune Books that "Men in Black is a good story—a speedy time-lapse image of evasive struggle. Its rummage through the debris of a life lived by taking the easier course among available alternatives doesn't uncover much wisdom, merely a talent for survival." The novel loses power, Chatain argued, because Sam is too self-pitying, especially when pondering his fate should his wife discover his infidelity. "His frustrated dreams, his past failures, his old temptations are held up to brooding condemnation, but his close-at-hand present and future actions escape the kind of reasoned weighing of alternatives that is a familiar, even necessary ethical dimension of life," Chatain wrote. However, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, found Men in Black "charmingly funny-sad" and argued that "Mr. Spencer … has a charming way of capturing the banal side of the antic and the antic side of the banal."
Fame also plays a role in Spencer's next novel, The Rich Man's Table. This book follows Billy Rothschild's search for Luke Fairchild, a world-famous 1960s folk rock superstar based on Bob Dylan. Billy is the son of Luke, born to Luke's girlfriend Esther Rothschild just as he was hitting the big time, though Luke has never acknowledged him as such. Though Billy is an adult, he has not had much of a life, holding only temporary jobs, such as substitute teacher, in part because of who his father is. His mission to find Luke, understand him in his many paradoxes by interviewing those close to him, and be acknowledged as his son, is a means for Billy to begin his own life again. Spencer uses the novel to explore the meaning of having a public life and persona, and the effect it has had on Luke and those around him. Steve Brzezinski in the Antioch Review wrote: "The ending is rather melodramatic and forced, but the precision of the writing, the evocation of the period, and in particular the portrait of Luke Fairchild make this a compelling and absorbing novel."
Spencer returns to familiar territory in A Ship Made of Paper. The novel looks at a love affair from the point of view of the two parties involved. It also considers the affect their illicit romance has on their lives and those of the people around them. Daniel Emerson is a successful lawyer living with his girlfriend Kate and her young daughter Ruby in his New York State hometown of Leyden. The family has left New York City to escape the danger caused by his losing a major case. It becomes more complicated when Daniel gets involved with Iris Davenport, a married graduate student. The couple meets at Ruby's daycare center where Iris's son is also enrolled. The passionate affair leads to a social and economic downfall for Daniel. In the novel, Spencer also looks at issues of race and racism that emerge because Daniel is white while Iris is black. Noting that "A Ship Made of Paper rocks with suspense and daring," Suzy Hansen in Salon.com also commented: "Spencer … is an enchanting writer. The steady, expanding intensity of his sentences do spellbinding justice to the misery and joy of romantic obsession."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1986, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987, pp. 329-334.
Antioch Review, fall, 1998, Steve Brzezinski, review of The Rich Man's Table, p. 498.
Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1995, Elaine Kendall, review of Men in Black, p. E5.
New Yorker, July 21, 1986, review of Waking the Dead, pp. 93-94.
New York Times, September 6, 1979, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Endless Love, p. C19; May 7, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of Waking the Dead, p. C28; May 8, 1990, Michiko Kakutani, review of Secret Anniversaries, p. C19; April 17, 1995, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Men in Black, p. C13.
New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1973, Katha Pollitt, review of Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball, p. 32; January 2, 1977, Katha Pollitt, review of Preservation Hall, p. 12; September 23, 1979, Edward Rothstein, review of Endless Love, p. 13; July 22, 1990, Carol Muske, review of Secret Anniversaries, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, March 31, 2003, Amy Boaz, "Scott Spencer: Affairs of the Heart and Soul," interview with Scott Spencer, p. 36.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 21, 1995, Robert Chatain, review of Men in Black, pp. 3, 5.
Village Voice, June 17, 1986, Judith Levine, review of Waking the Dead, p. 49.
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (July 28, 2003), Suzy Hansen, review of A Ship Made of Paper.