Despite the media circus, despite the dancing Itos and the numerous parodies, not many people can look back upon the OJ Simpson trial without some sense of discomfort, a question of “What were we doing?” Underneath the spectacle that it was, it is a striking reminder that regardless of speculation, one can never presume to understand someone else’s romantic affairs, and what it’s like to live the life of a person of a different race than yours.
Scott Spencer ties these two delicate topics together in his love story A Ship Made of Paper, set during the high-strung period of the Simpson Case. Thirty-going-on-fortysomething Daniel Emerson’s life is languishing in the haze of rural New York as he practices halfhearted law, interacts with his neglectful parents, and drives around Ruby, the daughter of his alcoholic, acerbic girlfriend Kate. His life grows more exciting when he falls in love with Iris, the African-American mother of one of Ruby’s classmates. Like many torrid affairs, this proves to be one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to him — although the heat and exhilaration slow to a molasses crawl in the suburban atmosphere — drawing out the tension nicely and destroying some romantic clichés.
Spencer is masterful at handling the complexities of being human as he illustrates the highlights and dark spots of his characters. Even as he’s demonstrating the thoughtlessness of Kate and the cruelty of Hampton, Iris’ husband, it’s not clear whether Daniel and Iris’ relationship is a good idea. Disregarding the fact that both characters are selfish as to their own needs, Daniel is sappy to the point of sycophantism in his adoration of Iris, with Iris somewhat bland in her returns. It seems less a problem of character illustration, more a problem of human nature. Even in a great love affair, we are messy, with warts.
More delicately, nothing is cut-and-dried when it comes to the tender issues of race and class in the novel. While Spencer’s extremes are a bit over-the-top, with Hampton’s bellicose view towards whites and the blatant ignorant racism of many of the townsfolk (which seems a bit misplaced, in a town 100 miles from New York City), it still illustrates the extreme tenuousness of the topic.
Spencer’s setting is a curious one. Leydon, New York, is a small suburb not far from the City, but for all intents and purposes, it may be another country. The primary characters have some connections to New York but otherwise, Leydon is a mysteriously disconnected town where people seem disconnected from reality. Freak storms sweep through and seemingly Southern Gothic tragic characters rot away. In some ways it illustrates Daniel and Iris’ affair. The oddness of Leydon reflects the romance and passion of a love affair, but its run-of-the-mill-ness reflects that even when we are in a dangerous relationship, we still have our daily business to attend to.
Spencer’s novel has been billed often as a love story, and while that is the heart of the plot, his character development is so complex as to outstretch the trappings of one singular romance. Daniel loves Iris, but he also loves Kate and Ruby as Iris loves her husband and child and work. Love, life and race are all complex issues and even in the potentially rosy-hued setting of a romance novel, there should be no happy endings, just happy moments.