December 2009

Michael Schaub

fiction

The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage

As everyone who's worked in a literary profession knows, being a writer and editor is glamorous, fun, lucrative, and generally totally awesome. Even if you're a minor poet whose works are published in tiny literary magazines sponsored by a community college in southeast Nebraska, the biggest problem you'll have on a daily basis is which car to take to the liquor store to buy your top-shelf Islay Scotch and comically expensive cigars. It's not a frustrating, soul-crushing career path in the slightest.

Or so, you know, I thought, once upon a time. I was young and naive and believed a lot of things contrary to fact. I think I also thought I would one day be asked to play guitar for Sonic Youth, all war would end once marijuana was legalized, and the Democratic Party would successfully lead the nation one day without shooting itself in its collective foot. In other words, I was incredibly stupid. I don't regret becoming a writer and editor; I just wish I'd realized that one day I would be clipping coupons for generic canned beans and wondering how many electric bills I'd have to miss before the city cut me off completely. It turns out this is hard, and I haven't been offered one single seven-figure advance from a Manhattan publisher. (Though getting to use the Bookslut private jet and ski chalet in the Alps is pretty cool.) I'm happy, though, and I regret nothing. Except maybe the marijuana thing.

If you're ever looking to scare someone out of pursuing a career in literature -- and you just might want to do that, if you're either a realist or a complete dick -- all you have to do is give them a copy of The Cry of the Sloth, Sam Savage's bitter, brilliant, and devastatingly hilarious second novel. Savage made his debut as a published novelist last year at the age of 67 with Firmin, a dark-but-sweet novel about a complicated rat who lives in a bookstore basement; his follow-up is much funnier, but doesn't have a hint of the gentleness or sweetness of his previous book. That's not a bad thing -- it's difficult to pull off a novel as bleak and hopeless as The Cry of the Sloth, and even harder to execute it so your readers are laughing even as they're horrified beyond belief. It's almost certainly an exaggeration to say Sam Savage is the only one who could make it work, but it's not much of one. It's hard to imagine anyone else doing it this well.

Savage's second novel follows Andrew Whittaker, a would-be writer and editor of a failing literary magazine, Soap, in the Nixon-era upper Midwest. He makes his meager living as a rentier, a neglectful landlord who treats his tenants with unvarnished scorn. The properties he owns are in awful shape; he tries to make his renters foot the bill for repairs, since most of his money goes to alimony payments to his ex-wife, the expenses of publishing Soap, and increasingly desperate and unhealthy purchases at supermarkets and liquor stores. (One grocery list he makes starts off with "sliced cheese" and "rolls," and ends with "coffee," "Crisco," and "a different life.") He's planning a literary festival to promote his magazine, and suffering from hilarious delusions of grandeur -- he seems to think he'll be able to pay for a parade (with elephants!) and convince Norman Mailer to be a featured speaker. As his life starts to unravel, he begins a flirtation, via mail, with a high-school girl who's submitted poetry to Soap, seemingly unaware that the romance, like his planned festival, has no hope of coming to fruition.

This is mostly an epistolary novel; the bulk is told in letters from Whittaker to his ex-wife, his old friends, his contributors, and his tenants. It's punctuated with shopping lists, signs he's posted at his properties, and his laughably clumsy attempts at fiction. It's a perfect narrative choice; it gives the reader a chance to watch Whittaker change his tone and register in different situations, though only slightly -- Whittaker is basically a deluded, sad, arrogant, hateful ass. He writes with reluctant anger to his ex-wife, slavishly devoted flattery to Norman Mailer and the other writers he's trying to lure to his festival, patronizing meanness to his tenants, and pathetic, cap-in-hand sadness to his creditors, bankers and lawyer.

Whittaker might be one of the most unlikeable characters in recent American fiction; he's also one of the most compelling. His closest literary analog is Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces, but Whittaker is actually sadder, more pitiable, and infinitely more hopeless. He writes letters to the editors of the local arts newspaper under fake names, praising himself and his magazine. Even as his telephone service is being cut off and his properties are being foreclosed upon, he envisions a float with flashing colored lights as the centerpiece of the literary festival he hopes to host. His delusions are sad, but at no point does the reader believe that Whittaker is acting out of any motive beyond selfishness. His love of literature seems to be inauthentic, just a symptom of his self-aggrandizement and narcissism. But it's still impossible not to feel sorry for him. Savage asks the reader to laugh at Whittaker, which is risky -- in the hands of a lesser writer, this could come across as unbearably mean. And it would if it weren't for the fact that this book is so relentlessly funny, despite its incredible darkness.

The Cry of the Sloth hits like a punch in the solar plexus, and never, ever lets up. Savage is a brilliant humorist who's created one of the most original antiheroes in recent American fiction. It's as painful as it is hilarious, as sad as it is remarkable. And yeah, it could scare off impressionable youths from wanting to pursue writing or editing as a career. It's lucky for us, though, that Savage wasn't scared off himself; he's become one of America's funniest, cleverest, and most vital writers of fiction.

The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 1566892317
224 Pages

Michael Schaub was a writer and editor at Bookslut from 2002 to 2009. He has since left his position as managing editor of Bookslut, and now plays guitar for Sonic Youth, and is Undersecretary of State for Peace and Getting High.