I never actually met a book that I would have described as being “tragicomic.” Of course I knew what it meant — it’s pretty easy to guess the definition from the word itself, and I’ve certainly read novels or memoirs that have both funny and sad parts; but none of those have ever led me to describe it using that word. (Many words, of course, are not so easy to figure out just by looking at and I have to resort to the dictionary. For example, I always have trouble remembering what “sanguine” means; it sounds to me as though it should mean its exact opposite. Hold on a moment, I need to go look it up again just to make sure that it means something like confident.)
But I digress. I just finished a terrific little novel that the word “tragicomic” fits to a tee (or should that be a “t”?). Sam Savage’s second novel (after Firmin, which I also loved) is The Cry of the Sloth (Coffee House Press, 2009). In it, we spend four months with middle-aged and failed novelist, failed publisher (of Soap: A Journal of the Arts), failed son, failed husband, failed landlord, and now financially bankrupt Midwesterner Andrew Whittaker. The book we’re reading consists of the contents of everything that he’s written from July to October of a particularly bad year: letters to writers wanting their work published in Soap, including letters to his ex-wife, letters to his tenants, fragments of a novel he’s trying to write, letters to an old college friend, letters to the bank and telephone company, and shopping lists. These are, on the surface, the comic part. But even as we’re chuckling over the letters, we’re coming to realize that Andrew is — really, truly — falling apart, descending ever more swiftly into despair and desolation. So we have to ask ourselves as we head toward the last pages of the book, what happens to someone when they realize that they are, in fact, an utter failure? What are their options then?
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book that will give you a sense of Andrew’s voice. The first is a letter to an old college friend whom he hasn’t seen in many years:
We make choices so early, and on the basis of practically no information, and then we end up with these different lives that we are really stuck with. It’s all so depressing.
And later in the book Andrew writes to Jolie, his ex-wife, now living in New York:
Which decision was the wrong one? Or were there five wrong ones, or a thousand? People like to say that each moment presents us with a fork on our life path; I sit at my desk instead of going to the window, where perhaps I would have been hit by a brick, or going for a walk in the park, where I would have met a beautiful woman, a mugger, a man selling insurance, or no one at all. Walking to the store, I turn on this street rather than that street; and everything is different forever. Have you ever wondered if the same thing might be true in the other direction? Going backwards, there are also choices to be made every step of the way, each item revived in memory only the first link of a new mnemonic chain, and every new chain recreating a different past, constructing a different album of photos, unpacking another box of forgotten treasures — a different past, which must of necessity be the past of a different present, a different future, a different person.
It’s often hard to find small press books at big box retailers (which is why independent bookstores and libraries are so important), but in my experience it’s worth seeking them out.