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The Cry of the Sloth
By Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
They say that in the arts, the projects we're most passionately drawn to are the ones that most accurately reflect our own true inner selves; so I'm not sure what exactly it says that one of my favorite types of novels are what I call "anti-villain" stories, in which our main character starts as a fairly likable if not strange person, but then has turned into a rather despicable monster by the end, usually through a combination of crippling self-delusion, a complete and utter lack of introspection, and even the inability to envision an external morality that doesn't bend and warp to justify their every personal whim. And indeed, I suspect that one of the reasons I like such novels so much is precisely because they subvert the usual expectations of the Western-Civ three-act narrative structure, in which usually our main character is someone we can legitimately root for as the story progresses -- for other excellent examples of anti-villain stories, see my past reviews of Michael FitzGerald's Radiant Days, Kevin Shay's The End As I Know It, and Tod Wodicka's All Shall Be Well..., which is so great that it still sometimes randomly pops up in my head when I'm not expecting it.
And I have to say, such stories don't get much more dryly funny if not cringe-inducing than Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth, the latest by this already popular Wisconsinite (his previous Firmin was lauded by both the American Library Association and Barnes & Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" program, even more astounding in that Savage was in his late sixties at the time), a book virtually perfect for the overhyping literary enthusiast in your life because of it making such vicious fun of such people. And it's even more remarkable in this case for not being told in a traditional contemporary way at all, but rather in the outdated "epistolary" style of storytelling, where instead of descriptions and dialogue the entire tale is related through a series of written letters; one-way letters in this case, all of them emanating from one Andrew Whittaker, in an unspecified Midwestern state in the pre-internet 1970s. Turns out that Whittaker is the long-suffering editor of the pathetically unpopular Soap literary journal, whose grandness in his eyes clashes badly against the joke status it obviously occupies with nearly everyone else around him; what this book consists of, then, is basically a series of letters that Whittaker issues forth from his inherited crumbling Victorian home which serves as Soap headquarters -- letters to contributors, letters to his ex-wife and former school chums, letters to the deadbeat tenants of the run-down apartment building he owns and refuses to keep in decent shape, even such internal memos as shopping lists and first-draft excerpts from his supposedly brilliant new novel-in-progress (which as you can imagine is actually execrable, a plain fact to everyone but Whittaker himself).
And indeed, much like Eric Bogosian's Perforated Heart (which now that I think about it, is an anti-villain story as well), the most joyful and telling aspect of Sloth is not really anything that Whittaker actually says, but all the unspoken messages that lie behind the way that the people around him react to what he says, which is what makes its epistolary format so clever, because Savage is able to build up layer upon layer of both insight and humor through such means. Just for one good example, look at the letter he writes early in the book to a woman he once had a one-night-stand with at a weekend book convention, and how surface-level funny his overwrought prose is when describing the torrid tryst ("Salient against the dark of your summer tan, your breasts are turning green and red, semaphores flashing in the dark night of memory"), wondering aloud whether they should actually give love another shot now that she's left her "loser husband;" so it's even funnier, then, when in his next letter to her twenty pages later, he is apologizing for not realizing that she had actually reconciled with said husband, and even funnier still in a third letter when he becomes confused over her almost opposite recollection of their weekend affair, completely failing to understand how she could think of it as "a very young and very frightened girl trapped in a squalid motel room with a bullying neurotic."
It's ultimately details like this that ends up making Sloth such an effective anti-villain story, instead of simply a funny novel about a self-deluded loser; because as the book continues, his self-delusions and selective memory start turning more and more disturbing and sometimes outright evil. And that's what makes Savage so brilliant an author, because he so deftly walks us down that road from the expected to the unexpected; in the first half, for example, all my fellow fans of the underground arts are sure to knowingly smile at the ridiculously optimistic expectations Whittaker has for his coming "Words On Fire National Literary Conference and Festival" (which he envisions featuring a town parade with elephants, giant paper-mache puppets of classic authors made by local schoolchildren, and guest of honor Norman Mailer), while by the end we are literally cringing at the letters he is writing to the local newspaper under fake names, attempting to defend in third person his recent drunken misogynistic brawl at the county fair against his longtime rival, the genteel housewife-run fellow local lit journal The Art News. It's effectively Savage having his cake and eating it too, presenting us lit fans with an all-too-familiar figure -- the arts administrator much better at marketing than at actually producing, who falsely fawns all over the people he is trying to get something from, then instantly turns on them when the attempt fails -- but then by the end ratcheting up this figure's behavior to well beyond the boundaries of most of the people you'll find in the typical poetry scene or academic environment.
It produces by the end a really engaging thing, an uncomfortably astute cautionary tale that by the end reaches over-the-top status; and that of course is what makes The Cry of the Sloth so entertaining when all is said and done, precisely because Savage eventually takes things to such a dramatic level, proving the old adage that good literature is essentially reality pushed to ridiculous extremes. It comes highly recommended today, and is a great addition in my opinion to the general anti-villain canon.
Out of 10: 9.3