A Disintegrating Life in Letters

The Cry Of The Sloth by Sam Savage

Savage, whose delightful and quirky first novel, Firmin: Adventures Of A Metropolitan Lowlife was published at the age of 67, has done it again with The Cry Of The Sloth, upping the quirk quotient considerably in this bizarrely funny, yet sad story.

Subtitled, ‘The Mostly Tragic Story of Andrew Whittaker being his Collected, Final, and Absolutely Complete Writings’, the story is told through Andrew’s myriad letters and occasional writings. Andrew produces and edits a small-time and mediocre literary magazine for local writers and poets called Soap. It loses rather than makes money, but he spends every hour he has on this labour of love. He finances this life as landlord of several rather dilapidated apartments, but he’s not really interested in them, he’d rather brood about his ex, Jolie – and write letters.

At the beginning of the novel, he has to write letters to some of his tenants to ask for the rent. The requests start off being reasonable, but it soon becomes clear that they are beginning to withhold the rent as the apartments need repairs – increasingly major ones. Andrew gets many submissions to Soap, but rarely agrees to publish any of them – instead he writes rejection letters, initially reasonable again, but they get more verbose, argumentative and quite rude as time goes on. He also writes many letters to Jolie, telling her why he misses her and why he can’t afford the maintenance with increasingly wild excuses. His diminishing income leads him to start to make savings all around, he no longer goes out, he doesn’t bother dressing, he stops going shopping, his mental stability suffers more and more. His life is disintegrating all around him, yet he still believes that he will be able to plan and pull off the great literary festival that is his dream. The letters are interspersed with hilarious notices to his tenants, shopping lists, and his own awfully hackneyed attempts at writing his own novel of the great American Dream.

Whittaker’s is a mid-life crisis and a half, and he compares himself and his life to that of a sloth he finds in a book of mammals while sorting out his basement…

It moves so slowly and hangs out (literally) in such damp leafy places that green algae grows on its fur. As has happened to me during the current monsoon, or so it seems. There is mildew on everything, and I myself am feeling quite mossy in spots. As for inactivity, I don’t think I’ve moved two hundred yards in the past two days.

This portrait of a bitter and twisted weed of a man is really unsympathetic! Bookslut’s review reminds us of another unlikeable character – Ignatius P Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces. I agree that Andrew Whittaker is much sadder than the piece of work that is Reilly, and because of that we do end up sympathising with him – just a little, (while we’re laughing behind our hands).

This is a highly original take on the epistolary novel. Like We Need To Talk About Kevin, we only hear one side of the story – the only words are those of Whittaker’s. Whereas in the former I’d have liked to hear a little of the other side of the story, from Kevin’s Dad say, here – I think it would dismiss any slight hint of compassion we have for Whittaker if some of his correspondents were permitted to reply, or Jolie to speak. The novel does sag slightly in the third quarter, but picks up enough by the end to make this a compelling read, and although as the sub-title says, it is mostly tragic, thankfully it’s not totally so! (8/10)

This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.

Source: Own copy

Sam Savage, The Cry of the Sloth (W&N, 2009) paperback 272 pages.

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