Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Do We Cry for the Sloth?

Coffee House Press, the innovative US Publisher of Firmin, saw my blog piece on their book and asked if I would like to review the author’s forthcoming novel, The Cry of the Sloth (To be published Sept. 1). Sure, I said, thinking that I might be graduating from reading about a lovable rat to an equally lovable sloth, and sloths are much cuter to begin with, sort of an upside down koala bear. The advance copy arrived as we were getting ready to leave for the summer so I looked forward to kicking off the summer reading season with Sam Savage’s new book. Not only did I love Firmin, I was more than curious about the author as he is about my age and it brings hope to us old guys; who knows, there might be a first book in each of us still.

The Cry of the Sloth is an epistolary novel, set in a Midwestern town during the 1970’s, quite a departure from Firmin written in the first person by a very literary rat. It is the first such novel I’ve read since 84 Charing Cross Road, which is actually not fiction but an exchange of letters between a New York book buyer and an antiquarian bookseller in London. The one thing all three books have in common is that they are about the literary world, although the “Sloth’s” world is faux literary.

The “action” mainly unfolds by following our protagonist, Andrew Whittaker, over a four month period, through his letters and other miscellaneous writings, including his interpretations of his correspondents’ replies (in the rare cases when he received one), as well as just about everything else he writes, including fragments of a novel (“meant to be comic [but] it has acquired an overlay of desperation”), notices to his tenants of apartments he inherited (“Do Not Throw Cigarette Butts in Flower Pots”), apartment ads (“Enjoy a Family Lifestyle!”), grocery lists (“t.p”. – toilet paper being prominent on each), fragments of ideas for stories, and notes to himself.

Mainly, his letters are to the contributing writers of his failing literary magazine, Soap, A Journal of the Arts, of which he is the Editor, his ex-wife, Jolie, to whom he owes alimony and on whom he was obviously entirely dependent for keeping his life organized when Soap began, Vikki, a contributor and perhaps Soap’s only donor, creditors who hound him for money, the Rapid Falls Current, the small town newspaper with which he is at war, and successful novelists, some old friends who obviously do not answer his pleas to participate in a spring literary festival. He obsesses on the festival as his salvation, much as Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich saw his Overcoat.

It is a lonely, solitary journey, kaleidoscopic in nature so we, the reader, see only parts of the mosaic and always through the eyes of the 43 year old Andrew Whittaker. But through that prism we witness his slow slide, progressing through various states of mind, with his ranting and ravings, paranoia, even writing letters under pseudonyms to the local newspaper praising “That Andy is a quiet, dignified, private man,” and then responding to his pseudonym under still another one.

His obsessive compulsive behavior leads him to perform all tasks, explain all his actions in minutiae and repetitively, sometimes hilariously but always to the point of sadness. He becomes fixated on why there are no photographs of him between the ages of seven and fifteen in the family album, pursuing an answer from his sister, from whom he is estranged (what else), and from his dying mother who is in a nursing home. “If everything we do not remember did not exist, where would we be?”

While packing up his books he finds an encyclopedia of mammals and it is there he comes across the “ai,” a variety of a three-toed sloth which he sees as having a head too small for its body, “something I have thought about myself” obsessing to the point of having his head measured. But, he happily reports to his friend, Harold, that he moves his “…bowels once every day with clockwork regularity. I mention this because the ai shits and pisses only once a week.”

His wife has run off with an old novelist friend on a motorcycle who he remembers saying “she would never marry anybody as ambiguous as I am.” And there is an amorphous quality to Andrew and the novel itself, leaving the reader with more questions than answers, part of Savage’s intent.

Towards the end of the novel, he writes to Vikki “I have sunk back into all my old vices – slovenliness, sloth, and gargantuan pettiness,” perhaps his most insightful introspective epiphany. In the Christian moral tradition “sloth” is also one of the seven deadly sins, characterized by wasting away and entropy, the essence of Andrew Whittaker. The punishment in hell for such a sin is to be thrown into snake pits and, interestingly, he finds a pair of snakeskin boots in his basement, ones someone had accused him of stealing.

Savage’s writing is precise and engaging, weaving satire and pathos. He portrays an inexorable path for our protagonist, a fascinating, tragicomic portrait of isolation and personal failure, in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka. “All around me things are in decay, or in revolt. If only I could walk out of myself the way one walks out of a house.”

As Andy says at the end of one very long letter: “Imagine a man in a room talking about himself, perhaps in a very boring way, while looking down at the floor. And while he goes on with his monologue, which as I said is of interest only to himself, one by one the other people in the room tiptoe away until he is all alone, the last one shutting the door silently behind him. Finally, the man looks up and sees what has happened, and of course he is overcome by feelings of ridicule and shame. Maybe this letter is now at the bottom of your wastepaper basket, a tiny trivial voice in the depths of a tin well, rattling on and on.”

Are we still in the room listening to Andy? Yes, or no, Savage has established himself, with Cry of the Sloth, and Firmin, as an important “new” literary voice at the age of 67.