It is rare to find a work of contemporary fiction that defies standard elements of fiction such as plot and paragraph, but that is exactly what you will find in Sam Savage’s sophomore novel The Cry of the Sloth. The story is told in letters, grocery lists, classified ads, and rough drafts written during a four month period by Andrew Whittaker; a never published author, derelict landlord of decrepit properties housing trashy tenants, and editor and sole employee of the literary magazine Soap.
The use of Andrew’s correspondence to tell his story, rather than using a more conventional point of view and prose structure of paragraphs and dialogue, allows Savage to showcase the complexity and contradictory aspects of Andrew Whittaker’s personality. Each correspondent: his ex-wife Jolie, his college roommate, a bevy of bill collectors, his tenants who refuse to pay rent or use garbage cans, writer friends from college who are successful and published authors, and aspiring writers submitting material for publication, each see a different side of Andrew. This is true to life; we all have many different ‘faces’ and which one we reveal depends on what and how much of ourselves we are willing to show to a particular person at a particular time. Andrew Whittaker takes this concept to a whole new level as he spirals downward into severe depression and begins weaving an intricately detailed web of lies to the recipients of his letters.
In his correspondence with Jolie, Andrew’s serial cheating ex-wife who left him to pursue an acting career in New York City only to end up involved with his writing nemesis, he is quick to point out just how bad life is for him. On the first page of the book, Andrew tells Jolie,
Even at the time of your departure at least half of them (rental properties) 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.)
It is evident early on in the book that this interpretation of Andrew’s life is fairly accurate. He argues with tenants to pay rent and with one tenant in particular to pay a damage bill for a collapsed ceiling. Andrew blames the tenant’s overweight wife’s bathing habits for the collapse and suggests that the tenant design a pulley system to gently ease his wife into the bath water or to not fill the tub as much. He argues with his bill collectors, urging them to not shut off his telephone because it would cause them to not get their money if Andrew doesn’t have a phone to conduct business.
However, when corresponding with Fern, a young and ambitious girl who submits poems and photographs to Soap hoping for publication, he writes to her about receiving her latest photographs:
I am, as you have probably guessed, a single man, practically the archetypical “confirmed bachelor,” and the abrupt appearance on my desk of a large photograph showing an attractive young lady on a sofa, in an attitude that can only be described as languid, provoked a spate of good-natured teasing from some of the staff, the older women especially.
The only other person who worked on the magazine besides Andrew was Jolie, and she set off for something new, something better, some time ago. From Andrew’s letters to Fern, it is that he has developed a crush on the girl from her provocative photographs and good natured correspondence. The jealousy rages across the page when Andrew castigates Fern for recruiting her English teacher to take the photos. In Andrew’s mind, it is only natural to write of himself as a successful literary editor with aspirations of something bigger, if only the magazine would allow him the time. If Fern really knew the truth, she wouldn’t be interested in keeping up the correspondence.
The multiple personalities Andrew exhibits throughout his correspondence paired with the often rude and inappropriate things he writes show that he isn’t the most socially graceful man. He writes to his college roommate Harold and tells him about how he used to make fun of him and his “ineptness and bucolic ignorance, and your comical mispronunciations of unusual words.” Andrew just doesn’t realize that this type of behavior will repel friends, not attract them.
Another bad habit, so to speak, is Andrew’s ability to ramble on about the most trivial or strange topics in such a way that it is easy to get drawn into reading several pages before realizing that you are reading something that isn’t going anywhere. For example, a page and a half after telling his college roommate how he used to poke fun at him, Andrew writes, “I wonder if you are still reading this…Maybe this letter is now at the bottom of your wastepaper basket, a tiny trivial voice in the depths of a tin well, rattling on and on. Is your wastepaper basket made of tin?”
The most interesting of Andrew’s rambling is his obsession with the sloth. Periodically throughout the novel, Andrew writes to people about the encyclopedia of animals that he keeps on his kitchen table so he has something to look at while he drinks his coffee. From this encyclopedia, Andrew becomes an expert on the sloth; he sees parallels between the sloth and his own life: “I have learned to imitate the sloth’s cry almost exactly. I am able to do this, I think, because I have been upside down for so long.” He feels a kinship to the sloth, as it is the only other animal on Earth besides human beings that can go insane. He empathizes with their life of slowness and boredom that eventually gives way to the animal’s death as “it forgets to hold on and plunges to its death on the forest floor.”
By the end of the novel, Andrew Whittaker is a completely different man than he was at the beginning. We, the readers, see him spiral downward into depression and then out of control as he pens letters to the editor from imaginary people touting his admirable qualities and practices making the cry of the sloth. The depth and breadth of Andrew’s character is as deep and strong as it is because of the novel’s format as a book of his letters to others. Readers would not want to read a book about this sometimes wholly unlikable character if he was presented in a standard paragraph and dialogue novel structure.
Grace Onorato is an avid reader and aspiring novelist. She has a BA in Writing from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. She lives in Delmar, NY.