The Cry of the Sloth Sam Savage. Coffee House Press. $14.95, 224 pp.
“He paced to and fro, sometimes wringing his hands in agony, and often making his own woe a theme of scornful merriment.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Christmas Banquet
In Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth we are stuck with Andrew Whittaker, literary magazine editor, slumlord, divorcee, debtor, and occasional performance artist. The novel—described as a “send-up of the artistic life”—is structured around Whittaker’s papers: letters, novel fragments, shopping lists, and notes to his tenants. The effect of reading this full-length novel told primarily though the raving, one-way letters of a misanthropic has-been is not unlike being cornered with a maudlin drunk at a party, and indeed, much of Whittaker’s voice is the aesthetic version of a desperate face held too close—the hot breath of his overstated railings against the literary elite, the long unruly sentences like strands of hair flattened to a sweaty forehead, the small gin-blossoms of the few full-blooded passages of feeling.
Savage clearly means Whittaker to be this insufferable—after all, he represents the myopic hubris of the literary outsider who believes himself deserving of much more. Yet once readers have become fully exasperated with Whittaker (and it takes only a few pages), the goal of satirizing the literary life has largely been accomplished. We’ve read his uppity rejection letters to aspiring contributors, we’ve been introduced to his petty feud with a rival magazine (“the swarm of toadies at The Art News“), we’ve even seen lovingly crafted prose pressed into service to beg his tenants for rent. What keeps this insufferable protagonist from repelling us is how he becomes too self-referential to be the object of a coherent satire. Savage slyly positions him not as an over-serious figure of ridicule but as a man tragically addicted to the dark comedy of his own life.
Whittaker seems to take nothing—not even his own poverty and the demise of his literary reputation—seriously. In his letters to former lovers, friends, and literati, he expertly mocks himself by anticipating his readers’ disgust and one-upping them, and even the festival for his literary magazine, Soap, is cast as a joke: Whittaker writes of his plans to include a parade, elephants, bumper cars, and a “a framed photograph of Marilyn Monroe in a bubble bath” for the recipient of the Soap Lifetime Achievement Award.
It’s Whittaker’s immense sense of humor that complicates the novel. If this were a simple send-up of literary life, Savage would need to present Whittaker as more of a straight man, a man who would plan a literary festival with great seriousness and purpose. Satire feeds off sincerity—no matter how misplaced or absurd. But because Whittaker is so unserious, even about his own demise, he can no longer be the object of satire. Readers are left instead with a character who gleefully debases himself, then chronicles his debasement in hilarious vignettes for the recipients of his letters.
The problem with this is that it is difficult to sympathize with a character who parodies his own misery. The novel ends with Whittaker proclaiming that he is journeying from his home “because I am bored, because I am frightened, because I am sad.” Savage seems to imply that under all Whittaker’s showy, witty, flamboyant suffering is a core of real suffering. Or perhaps the point is that Whittaker’s inability to take even his own pain seriously is in itself a profound kind of suffering. “I don’t find my jokes funny anymore,” Whittaker continues, but the ceaseless levity of what has come before this reversal makes it feel abrupt. If Savage’s intention was to show the consequence of leaning too heavily on humor, of his character’s habit of dodging earnestness even in his own thoughts, then Whittaker’s progression toward this epiphany should be clearer. I wanted to hear Whittaker say one sincere thing—one comment without an ironic cast, one insight not immediately undercut by his own scorn—and I think I found one:
What is it about me that makes me want to make a fool of myself? I suppose at bottom it’s just a perverse form of vanity, the cut-up in class who makes himself into an idiotic spectacle in order not to vanish altogether. But still, I am not pretending, and the mortification I feel in these situations is perfectly genuine. I write a letter, blushing with shame at every sentence, right to the tips of my ears, and send it off; and walking back to the house from the mailbox I catch myself muttering “That’ll show ‘em.
This passage is sincerely reflective, and the novel would have benefited from more of this, if not to develop Whittaker’s real character than to at least serve as a palate cleanser before the next joke.
Yet despite The Cry of the Sloth’s muddled purposes, there is a treat hidden among Whittaker’s comedic laments. Interspersed between his letters, notes, and other written ephemera of daily life are fragments of Whittaker’s unfinished novel. Given how Whittaker is handled elsewhere, one would expect his own writing to be as overplayed and absurd as the letters, but the fragments are actually filled with good—even great—writing. Whittaker’s novel is impossible to summarize, and it takes some bizarre turns (a lawn mower become a kind of recurring trope). The writing is at times impeccable:
Sitting on a soiled mattress, he tried to think of nothing as he had vowed he would do. Yet the figure of the raven-haired girl on the bicycle impinged upon his wounded psyche like a moth battering its wings against the light of a dying bulb.
Savage has some subtle gifts as a prose stylist, but in The Cry of the Sloth he largely gives his talents over to establishing the shrill voice of Whittaker. What was the purpose of writing such quietly lyrical passages for Whittaker’s novel? Was it a comment on the distance between a writer’s personality and his work? Or was the point that Whittaker, unrestrained joker though he was, held himself back from his own talent? Savage, Whittaker, and the unfinished novel exist in a house of mirrors—it’s difficult to tell if Whittaker shrank from his abilities as a writer, or if Savage did.
Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She’s published fiction and poetry in Conduit, Conjunctions, Passages North, Hotel Amerika and others, and her collaborative flash fiction/visual art chapbook (with painter Curtis Rhodes) has recently been released as issue 42 of Xerolage. She can be found online at www.monicamcfawn.com.
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