Two reviewers take on one book and deliver their thoughts on the latest novel by the acclaimed author Sam Savage.
The Cry of the Sloth, by Sam Savage (Coffee House Press)
Review By Allie Riley
I’ve been thinking about fractals a lot. It started while leaning over in a friend’s garden, munching on the tops of brussels sprouts with dirt on my knees and pondering their infinite broccoli and asparagus-flavored folds. If brussels sprouts, sea shells, wood rings, triangles—what have you, are constantly repeating themselves, does the human mind and writer do the same thing? Answer: Only if they’ve been driven batty.
* * *
Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth impressively portrays the battiest side of writing, editing, loving, perving, and being through the tightly wound mind of Andrew Whittaker. The story comes as a series of his letters to everyone in his address book, interspersed with excerpts from his “work in progress.” Mr. Whittaker wears many hats as a landlord, editor, spurned lover, failed author, and premature old man—he even creates more characters using monikers and anagrams of his name to promote himself to editors. Savage seasons each hat with the usual depressive mercury solution and the added, unique combination of SoCo and years of accumulated apartment debris. Feel overwhelmed with hats, descriptors, and oddities? As well you should—Whittaker himself is. His life resembles a multi-faceted, multi-directional pendulum that is on the verge of missing its mark in any direction and twisting to a rusty halt.
As Whittaker’s letters careen through the July, August, and September of his most pathetically arduous year, his pendulaic* life is elucidated—we slowly find out why he lives alone, likens himself to a sloth and imitates its wuffs and screetches to himself in the dark. The pendulum begins to clatter against the blue tarp he’s hung across his windows, losing himself more in his own mind. It is rare that I find a book that makes me feel and taste the way it’s written (José Saramago’s Blindness being the only other that comes to mind right now), but Savage has thrown me against his blue tarp too—and I definitely trust him as far as he can throw me.
The frightening thing about this book is not random insanity incurred within a decrepit life, but the relatable and strangling details of being tuppence-less, discouraged, yet passionate about promoting emerging literature. What on earth does this have to do with fractals? Here was an author, writing about an author, who writes to other authors, and writes himself into a story about a story. As Savage’s Whittaker goes battier, the writing samples he inserts between letters become less styled, and more wildly perverse and scattered. The beautiful thing about Savage writing about a writer who writes profusely is that it isn’t done in that terribly lame “sitcom mentioning how their lives are just like a sitcom” style. It’s a completely genuine and believable character and writing evolution.
On top of impeccable and layered character development, The Cry of the Sloth does a marvelous job of capturing the timelessness of despair. Savage’s writing style will age comfortably—it isn’t obfuscated by pop culture or dated political commentary, as so many novels tend to be. It can be a fearful thing for an author to set a story without a set of cultural confines, but Savage does it in a way that makes this Nixon-era man seem like the smelly, flannel-bearing beardboy-author down the street... or me, when I’m smelly.
I can’t say I loved this book. At times it went on too long, and it did such a good job of making me uncomfortable with its accuracy that I’d hide it from myself for days... but I’d always come back to it. Addictively painful, like any effective drug, Andrew Whittaker’s deteriorating brussel-sprout-fractal-hats are easy (sometimes painful and sometimes silly) to slip on and get lost in—just be sure to take them off once in awhile, sop up the SoCo dripping down your face, and breathe.
* As relating to pendulum. I made up this word and ad libbed its definition for my own amusement.
Review By Alyssa Lochner
Full disclosure: I interned at Coffee House in the summer of 2008 and tend to have a bias toward thinking everything they publish is made of gold. I’ll try not to let that get in my way. Sam Savage’s first book, Firmin (about a rat living in a used bookstore who teaches himself to read), was a bestseller for Coffee House, so I was excited to see what he came up with as a follow-up. (Incidentally, I recommend Firmin to all book and word lovers.) In Savage’s second novel, our protagonist is once again a “literary lowlife,” albeit human this time around.
Andrew Whittaker is a rather pathetic man who lives in a smallish Midwestern town during the Nixon era. He runs a few duplexes and apartments as a source of income, but his passions are literary: the magazine he started, called Soap, and his own writing. He is getting old, he’s divorced, he’s lazy and slovenly, he’s petty and he has a temper. He exaggerates. He has a large vocabulary. He’s also incredibly pretentious and, as the saying goes, a legend in his own mind. The combination of all these factors makes The Cry of the Sloth hilarious—until they can’t anymore and make it heartbreaking instead.
The book takes place over the course of four months and is told through Andrew’s various writings. These include grocery lists, ads for vacant apartments, and fragments of the novel he’s trying to write. But the bulk of the novel is made up of Andy’s letters. Letters to his ex-wife, who has moved to New York and taken up with a rival; to contributors (and aspiring contributors) to Soap—specifically to young Fern Moss, whom he thinks of as a protégé, but who really is using and toying with him; to his tenants, who never pay their rent; to the editor of the local paper under various pseudonyms; to old friends and acquaintances, only a few of whom write back; to the bank; and even once to Norman Mailer. These can be wrenchingly funny and intensely sad at the same time. The tone over the course of the book shifts from more the former to the latter.
To revive interest and get some revenue for Soap, Andy is planning a huge, town-wide literary festival. How huge? “Let me drop this small hint in lieu of an answer: there will be elephants.” He writes a few letters to old acquaintances who have achieved literary success in an attempt to get them to come, but mostly this festival is just a fantasy. In fact, much of Andrew’s world is a fantasy; he twists events in his mind to paint them (and himself) in a more positive light. Nothing much seems to happen, but Savage has a gift for comedy, and the few scenes of genuine action that are described are uproarious—I laughed aloud on the bus more than once. He engages in a petty feud with The Arts Beat, Soap’s local rival, and writes letters under pseudonyms defending himself, in an attempt to describe himself as genial and unassuming, when it is painfully evident that this is not the case.
Slowly, Andy descends into a more and more pitiable state. He loses what little optimism he has and falls further into the fantasy world, because coming out of it is too depressing. He amuses himself by pretending to write frantically in front of the upstairs window, knowing the nosy old lady across the street is watching him, but after he actually heaves a typewriter out the window, he can’t think of anything more dramatic to do for her and is forced to stop.
His desperation increasingly shows in his letters to Jolie, the ex, with whom he is more pointed (though it’s easy to read between the lines of his other letters), and in the shopping lists, which include things like “what else” and “a different life.” He gets food poisoning. He complains of a buzzing in his ears. He breaks in the glass on a storefront. It appears that his grip on reality might genuinely be slipping. Even these can’t mask the reality of what happened, which is quite laughable, but painful.
At one point, in attempting to clean up his house, Andy comes across an encyclopedia of animals and finds himself focused on the ai, a three-toed sloth. He quite identifies with the creature, and in the letters in which he talks about it, he is at his most honest in describing himself.
“The sloth has acquired what is without doubt the most pitiable cry in the animal kingdom...The wiffle, though not exactly loud, has extraordinary carrying power. And it conveys such an extreme of pathos and grief that the native people will cover their ears and flee rather than listen to it for a second....The sloth, for its part, appears not to have any ears and so probably can’t hear itself, the only silver lining in the creature’s cloudy existence.”
The Cry of the Sloth is funny and tragic and dark. The tone and voice are perfect; it’s really impeccably written. Andy is difficult to love (I found myself wishing he would just DO something, anything to help himself), but the book is not. One can, at a most basic level, relate: Who hasn’t imagined a better life for themselves, after all?
Get the book from Coffee House Press!