Somewhere in anonymous middle America, in the bygone era of Andy Warhol and Richard Nixon, an idealistic and hardworking writer and editor strains to put out another issue of his groundbreaking literary journal, Soap. He supports himself as a landlord, but his impoverished tenants are often unable to pay him. His marriage has recently fallen apart, and his financial situation is quickly getting worse. The Cry of the Sloth, a bitter, hilarious and joyously sad novel by Sam Savage, consists of the letters this editor writes during the worst season of his life.
The epistolary form is as old as the novel itself, but the clever satirist Sam Savage makes it fresh by adding a spooky layer of unreality to this desperate letters this besieged editor writes. He contradicts himself, flatters himself, blatantly lies, invents identities, attempts (without much success) to manipulate anyone who falls into his orbit, and pleads nakedly for love. It’s not clear which of these letters actually get sent, but it is clear that this poor narrator is losing his mind.
Savage sets up a great metaphor by alternating his hero’s sarcastic pleas to tenants for rent payments with his similarly sarcastic rejection letters to poets and authors who submit their work to Soap. In his landlord letters, he is asking others for something, but they have nothing to give. In his editorial correspondence, others are asking him for something — publication, literary fame — and he cannot give this either. He clearly finds these needy writers pathetic, even as he is needy and pathetic himself. He has a hard time seeing them as individuals instead of a grasping mass, as he inadvertently reveals with responses like this:
Dear Mr. Poltavski,
In response to your request for submission guidelines, I enclose our standard statement. I wish more people would ask for guidelines before submitting inappropriate material that wastes my time as well as theirs. And thank you for including a stamped return envelope, which not enough of you do either.
Andrew Whitaker, Editor
As the rent situation worsens, he begins to lose his cool completely:
Dear Mrs. Lessep,
Thanks for letting us read, once again, “The Mistletoe’s 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 that you should submit it again. In the publishing world, “at this time” really means “forever”.
Editor at Soap
Things get steadily worse, and our hero’s sanity begins to unwind. He attempts a half-hearted flirtation with a teenage poet who writes about horses. He fantasizes about putting on a glorious literary festival in his small city, and battles with the local arts council representatives who obstruct his plans. He writes lonely letters to his ex-wife and attempts to befriend Norman Mailer. It’s all very funny, as his egotistical self-deceptions thicken into a fatal mess. We hear one side of the story, and can only imagine the reactions these letters get: it’s like a Bob Newhart comedy routine as told by Dostoevsky.
Cry of the Sloth is Sam Savage’s second novel, and it’s similar to his first, Firmin, which was a Litblog Coop selection as well as a surprising sensation in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Firmin was not a breakthrough hit in the USA, though it should have been, and this may be because it was about a rodent. Mark Sarvas passed over the book during the Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books, and cited this as one major reason: “Savage gives it his best shot, and at times Firmin is an affecting presence. But in the final analysis, he’s a rat and his plight never feels real because rats don’t think, talk, or write books!“
This is a valid point, and the good news is that The Cry of the Sloth offers the same sensibility and tragic trajectory as Firmin but is about a human being (the animal named in the book’s title is purely metaphorical). I was thrilled by Firmin but I think the new novel is even better. It also reminds me a bit of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, another comic novel about a desperate middle-aged literateur, and I think it’s better than The Anthologist too. I love this book, I recommend it highly, and I hope it is eventually recognized as a classic satire of the literary life.