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I Don’t Find My Jokes Funny Anymore

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The Cry of the Sloth

By Sam Savage
Coffee House Press, 2009

Sam Savage’s first adult novel, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), imagined the plight of a rat who can read. (The Criminal Life of Effie O., Savage’s first book from 2005, is more for children.) This singular talent that separated Firmin from his fellow rats could not, of course, build him a bridge to the human world. Stranded in a crumbling bookstore, occasionally venturing out to a movie house, reading Joyce, and learning how to play the piano, Firmin leads a lonely existence until finally befriended by an older reader. But most of his life is spent alone, when not being regarded either as vermin or odd. It’s an affecting tale of angst and frustration, while asking quietly: What purpose is there in being sensitive? What good are Firmin’s talents if they separate him from other rats and he can’t express himself to those who would understand his mind?

In the delightfully mordant The Cry of the Sloth, Sam Savage gives us Andrew Whittaker, a lonely man, isolated by a failed marriage, his own misdeeds, and his often ugly personality. A bookish individual, editor and owner of a small-time journal named Soap, Whittaker bears rat-like teeth at his competition. He writes letters to his ex-wife, women he knew years before, contributors to the failing journal, and impatient bill collectors, and these letters make up the majority of the novel, with the occasional excerpt from a diary and passages from a novel Whittaker has underway. While the correspondence tells us that Whittaker is desperately trying to keep his magazine afloat, and is a failure at romance, the novel he’s writing illustrates his loneliness, bitterness, and sexual frustration. Though Savage limits us to Whittaker’s point of view and we therefore have only a one-sided version of events, it’s clear that by the end of The Cry of the Sloth we have witnessed the fairly rapid decline of Whittaker as he loses his friends, his family, his income, and control over his emotional and mental state.

A typical letter to his ex-wife, the second in the book, reads:

Dear Jolie,
This is a smaller check than you expected, and that can’t be helped. Never mind what the separation agreement asserts, you know as well as I do the properties are not “income-generating assets.” Even at the time of your departure at least half of them were white elephants or worse, and they are now so heavily mortgaged, so deteriorated, they barely suffice to keep my small raft afloat while it is being tossed about on an ocean of shit, meager as it is and weighted with the barest of necessities. (I mean to say the raft is meager; the ocean of shit is, of course, boundless.)

That paragraph’s mixture of defensiveness, attack, “fine writing,” and pedantry sets the tone. Throughout the book Savage couches Whittaker’s nastiness and anger in this sort of high-flown speechmaking that comes across as a finicky attention to balancing every clause, as if only by such measures can Whittaker remain in control. Yet what often emerges is an icy rage.

The letters are marked by bad timing (to a former lover disparaging a man who the one-time lover is now with, and happily so), attempted seduction (of a young poetess who Whittaker thinks will fall for his man-of-letters guise) and, either implicitly or explicitly, expressions of disappointment or aggression. Here’s an example, from a letter to his only sibling:

Dear Peg,
Thank you for your note. I was already aware that I was a great disappointment to Papa and that you were a little princess. You are so disagreeable that I am sorry I ever wrote. Prior to reading your charming note, with its references to my intellectual capacities and my physique, there existed a large number of delightful pictures of you at all stages of childhood, including one on a pony. If you’d like me to send you a box with all the itty-bitty pieces, just let me know.
Your brother,

Early on, Whittaker receives news of his mother’s death in an old folks’ home, and he responds to the messenger:

So it was not, as I said, a surprise, and neither was it a jolt…. I was shocked (slightly) not that she was dead…but at how little I cared. It was not that I didn’t give a damn. I didn’t give an anything. You will say that I am experiencing that numbness which always precedes grief—I can almost hear you saying it, almost see that peculiarly unpleasant pursing thing you do with your lips—but you are wrong. I don’t feel in the least numb. If anything I feel a whiff giddy.

He concludes his chiding letter with the desire that the “stupid, disagreeable, selfish woman” be cremated or buried: “do whichever is least expensive.” Yet the very next letter, again to Jolie, throws us, if only momentarily: “Mama’s dead. I feel utterly bereft. And yet I can’t stop thinking of her. Little things, like her passion for the 1812 Overture and the hideous yellow pants she wore to play golf.” We can wonder where the truth is, and our inclinations may lean more to one answer than another, but still, can we be absolutely sure? Savage is careful to make Whittaker not simply unreliable as a narrator, but also ambiguous.

As those two representations about Whittaker’s feelings make clear, The Cry of the Sloth portrays a man divided within himself, representing his nature in any way he wants depending on who he’s writing. As the months move on (the action takes place from July to October), Whittaker begins to write letters to newspapers under pseudonyms praising himself or excusing his boorish behavior at literary events. We can see that something is crumbling inside him, but as we only get one perspective, from a lying correspondent, we can’t be sure if anything he says—his grief, his distress, his brief moments of happiness—is true or not. And we don’t really care about him as a character, or rather, not in the usual way.

A major difference between Whittaker and Firmin is that Savage took the time to build a case for liking Firmin; Whittaker is more a case study. He has the advantages Firmin pines for: the ability to articulate thoughts and be understood by people, and access to the large world Firmin sees from the edge of a bookcase or from the floor at the Rialto movie house, yet he screws everything up. He is not nearly so decent as Firmin, and though Whittaker sees himself like the ai, a type of sloth that inhabits the Amazon, solitary and largely motionless, he is much more aggressive. Lashing out at enemies real or imagined (or desperately needed for his self-definition), holed up behind the walls of his home with the windows shaded, causing trouble in public or through the post, soliciting female company without regard to the feelings of the women he corresponds with, Whittaker is the more rat-like character; he is also more human in some of our pettiest ways, and it’s this combination that gives the novel its sickly attraction.

Sam Savage

Savage is not out to present a rounded character, and only tips his hat to the conventions of plot or scene-setting (a reference or two to Nixon being in power, and standard remarks about the slow degrading of the integrity of buildings stand in for the degradation of the country, and the state of Whittaker’s mind). We’re given neither the usual backstory nor a likable character. Whittaker is at once pathetic, emblematic, and striking for being a close approximation of those minor figures who generally are prominent in the literary life of small towns. They are those “characters” who are barely recognized anywhere outside their small ambit and so fight all the more savagely for local recognition. They may come from what is considered a talented literary brood, but their careers and importance end at the beginning of the highway that leads to diverse and thriving urban centers; they might be poets for whom the word minor or amateur is too high a praise; they could be pretentious heads of micropresses who boast in American Book Review about the vital work they do in building writing communities; or they could be a librarian in a dying community who’s entrusted to review books for a big city newspaper thanks to connections, and who goes about basing his or her recommendations on standards of writing that have been overturned several times since their youth in the 1970s. They are the inconsequential people who become the unidentified figure at the edge of a photo.

This is the kind of plane Whittaker occupies. Despite plans for a literary festival, and his self-image as an innovator and literary rebel against his town’s mores, he knows his place, and his crushing disappointment is evident the more we read. But Whittaker is vigorous, thanks to his spleen, and his nastiness is complete and thorough. “What does it mean that I have such a gift for writing unpleasant letters? Does it say something about my character, that maybe I am not a nice person?” Yes: so why spend any time with him? The real-life versions of Whittaker can’t be closed as easily as a book, and there is a pleasure in shutting up a person who goes on and on sharing his precious thoughts.

But Whittaker is not evil, and there’s the uncomfortable rub; with a few twists, your life could end up looking like his. That it doesn’t, now, is not because of the grace of God or anything similar. It might be luck. There is no genius stifled by the Fates or misunderstood by a small-minded circle of fellow writers. Whittaker has only himself to blame for feeling used, taken advantage of, laughed at, and disrespected. His parents barely showed interest in him, but that doesn’t mean they’re to blame for how he turned out. He’s aware of his behavior, and that his letters will tick people off, but he never stops writing them.

Those endless letters, and the other material that make up The Cry of the Sloth, are mostly from Whittaker’s hand (there are a few letters under other names that might be written by others, but it’s a little unclear) and comprise, so the second part of the subtitle on the cover page tells us, “His Collected, Final, and Absolutely Complete Writings,” and this brings a question to mind. Since Whittaker effectively destroys every relationship we see he has, but is still alive and writing at the end of the book, who collected them, and when? We don’t know his life beyond the last line. The subtitle’s tone matches what Whittaker himself would come up with, but there’s no evidence that he has done so. We leave him on the last page saying:

With all my things finally gone [from his house], it is really only a matter of time. You see, there is nothing for me to do here anymore. I am embarking because I am bored, because I am frightened, because I am sad. But really because I don’t find my jokes funny anymore. Looking back over them I ask myself if they were ever funny, or did I just make them seem so by my laughter.

It’s important that he uses the word “embarking” rather than disembarking; the latter would seem more like a direct hint of suicidal tendencies, the former that some new journey is about to begin.

The first part of the subtitle refers to it being a “mostly tragic story,” a deliberately misleading and ironic little set-up. Savage’s aim is to inspire enough readerly charity to complicate the impression we have of Whittaker from his letters. Scattered throughout The Cry of the Sloth are references to Whittaker’s declining health: “I have a funny noise in my chest sometimes”; “My eyes are not better”; “I’m afraid something organic is going on in my brain, due perhaps to a severe lack of oxygen”; and he experiences a temporary loss of consciousness due to a fall in blood pressure. There is a long episode in a new doctor’s office where Whittaker obsesses over payment for treatment of an injured finger. And most alarmingly, he hears “a strange noise” in his head. The debilities affect Whittaker, who has no health care or anyone to turn to, in ways he doesn’t fully comprehend. There’s no relief for him, or the reader, from the continuing deterioration. He and the properties he rents are falling apart in similar fashion. (The word rent carries more weight than usual: his life has been rent by divorce, his clothes are rent by wear, and so on.)

In the midst of the systemic corruption of the Nixon years, Whittaker embodies, on a modest level, smallness and pettiness, and is a reminder of how easily we can turn, or naturally be, rotten to others while deluding ourselves about our own importance. The Cry of the Sloth is a fine example of the epistolary novel (another is Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea), and reminiscent of works that attempt to make someone who is unlikeable at least approachable (Joseph Heller’s Something Happened comes to mind). By focusing on a minor, carping, mean-spirited man, it shows that even an unedifying life can serve as a moral lesson.

Canadian writer Jeff Bursey‘s first book, Verbatim: A Novel, comes out this September from Enfield & Wizenty. It’s told in letters between bureaucrats, political debates set in dual columns, and lists.