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Between self-righteousness and self-loathing

A humorous book about Andrew's life, which is a mess

The biography of Sam Savage is quite remarkable. He earned a PhD in philosophy at Yale, where he also taught for a while. In his 30s, he left the dreary world of academia and worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, fisherman, and letterpress printer. At age 65, he finally published his first novel, Firmin. It’s about a rat that lives in a rundown bookstore. Surprisingly, the book became a highly acclaimed international bestseller. Now, Savage's The Cry of the Sloth is fresh off the presses, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be equally successful, even though the concept is as unconventional as Firmin's.

The novel holds the “collected, final and absolutely complete writings” of one Andrew Whittaker, 43, editor and publisher of a literary magazine called Soap, failed writer, and landlord. Andrew's life is a mess. His wife has left him, the houses he inherited from his father are falling apart, his mother is dying and contributors keep sending awful unsolicited poems to Soap.

Set in the 1970s, when people were still writing letters, the book covers four months of Andrew's life, and it is quite literally his complete writings: fragments of a book, notes to tenants, shopping lists, and many, many letters. To his ex-wife, to his authors, to the telephone company, to a former one-night stand, fake letters to the editor and many rejection slips to contributors: “Thanks for letting us read, once again, The Mistletoes' Little Shoes. After careful consideration we have concluded that this work still does not meet our needs. I am sorry you were misled by the phrase 'does not meet our needs at this time' into thinking you should submit it again. In the publishing world at this time really means forever.”

The responses, however, are not included in the book; the collection thus does not tell a story but rather paints a portrait of Andrew as he slowly slips into misery and madness. His writings become more and more erratic and eccentric, like the six-page essay to his bank in which he explains why he can't pay his bills. The literature festival that he is planning grows to preposterous dimensions. He feels haunted by a rejected author and he becomes obsessed with the tree sloth, whose cry he learns to imitate. Sam Savage has created a wonderful portrait of an artist who meanders between self-righteousness and self-loathing. It's a sad, yet decidedly humorous book.

 

Tim Aretz

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