A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

Claire Zulkey

Spencer's novel has been billed 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.

A Ship Made of Paper

Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 368
Price: $24.95
Author: Scott Spencer
US publication date: 2004-03

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.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.