Books You Should Read Instead of Seeing “Endless Love”

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by Sarah Beller

This Valentine’s Day marked the release of the movie Endless Love, a remake of the 1981 film starring Brooke Shields. Both films are technically based on Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel of the same title. In his novels, Spencer ambitiously tackles the big issues of love, failure, mortality, violence, and ethics. If anyone else wrote his plots, the resulting prose might be melodramatic “trash.” But in Spencer’s capable hands, the reader is taken someplace dark and weird, but never sentimental. As Spencer discovered when he read the recent film’s script, it’s been purged of its danger and politics (the “communist father is now an aw-shucks guy who works on cars, and, like most working class people in movies, is ashamed of his position in life”) and has been white-washed (the “Jewish lovesick arsonist protagonist is now a gentile with flying fists”). There’s nothing Spencer can do, as he signed away the movie rights and the remake rights in 1980 (“I could not resist the money”). But there is something you can do: Read his books instead of heading to the movie theater.

Here are Spencer’s top five novels, starting with his best:

Endless Love (1979)
Blood (menstrual and otherwise), semen, tears, and emotions flood this devastating novel, Spencer’s third and most popular. In sometimes excruciating depth, he records the moments many of us would rather turn away from or push down deep into our unconscious. The protagonist, David Axelrod, can be frightening and repellant in the intensity of his obsession with his high school sweetheart, Jade Butterfield. But anyone who’s been an infatuated teenager (or infatuated adult) will feel at least a shred of recognition in a world where love and tragedy are eternally enmeshed.

Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall (1976)

Spencer’s second novel envelopes the reader in the pervasive sense of dread that surrounds its main character, Virgil Morgan. In contrast to his failed-musician of a father, Virgil has nearly amassed all the trappings of a normal life–a beautiful wife, a steady job, and now a vacation home. But like Oedipus, Virgil can run, but he can’t hide from his family and fate. And somewhere deep down he knows it.

Waking the Dead (1986)
A man with a love of politics must deal with the politics of love. Spencer’s strong writing carries an unusual plot, which unravels at a suspense-filled pace along with the protagonist’s, Fielding Pierce’s, sense of his own sanity. Like David Axelrod in Endless Love, Pierce is fixated on a woman–but in this case, she’s dead.

A Ship Made of Paper

A Ship Made of Paper

A Ship Made of Paper (2003)

In an interview with Lorrie Moore, Spencer said that all his novels are variations on Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. In Spencer’s books, fierce, pure desire gets struck by the harsh reality of “civilization,” whether in the form of parents or politics or police or psychiatrists. In this, Spencer’s eighth novel, characters’ desperate desires come up against their sense of right and wrong; they want to be good, if only they could find the way.

Man in the Woods (2010)
A kind of sequel to A Ship Made of Paper, in which the main character commits a sudden act of violence that shakes his inner world but seems to go unnoticed by the outer universe. As the characters toe the line between fantasy and reality, selfishness and self-denial, who they are inside clashes and crashes against who they appear to be.

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