The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage

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The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A acid-dry look at a failed author, his failed marriage, his failed industry. It's not a failure itself - there are good laughs - but it's a little too scathing to be completely welcoming
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297856498

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Meet Andrew Whittaker. In some untold time of recent American history, he is forced through a failed marriage and an artistic temperament at odds with so many other people, to let properties to tenants he does not like, for $120 a month. The lodgers might not like the state of the buildings - ceilings falling through and so on - but that's another matter. He would much prefer to be left alone in front of his little Olivetti typewriter and create art. He runs a literary journal, of a kind, called "Soap", which no-one likes, no-one reads (and often, with dodgy, cheap printing, no-one could physically read it anyway), and which makes him poorer in time, money and spirit.

Whittaker is a great curmudgeonly character. He says at one point "I am not in the business of being polite", and he shows it most readily. That ceiling falling through? - that's the fault of the lodger's fat wife swilling the bathwater out the tub every time she lollops in, if he's to be believed. We see him get in touch with his sister to ask why there seem to be no photos of him as a child in their mother's estate, and can come up with many reasons.

The construct of this book is of chief importance. Everything we see here is from the hand, pen, or typewriter of Andrew himself - his begging letters to authors he once met, asking them to help "Soap" out, his shopping lists, and his own literary attempts. But mostly it is his letters, to contributors, family, exes.

This is right up my street, as I love anything that is a little quirky like that. The humour is great, too - acerbic, intellectual to a tiny degree, and a masterclass when it comes to him telling his bank why he hasn't shown them any accounts. There is an alter ego even that shows us depths beyond the unreliable 'narrator', and reveals more.

But whether it's because I'm getting old or some other reason, I found this a little too much. I felt myself easily losing favour with the book, as it ended up a too insincere mockery of a lovely character. The tragic elements were there to match with the opening comedy, but the transition from one to another was not handled as I would have liked. The comic start, the fresh delivery and great voice of Whittaker are fine, but even so this felt at times like a too trivial sketch, a literary vignette, turned into a novel in a slightly disagreeable way.

The book boiled down to me to be a hypocritical letter writer, something like Henry Root, with the creative talents of Adrian Mole, as done by Nicholson Baker. And as quirky and appealing as that melange might have been, to repeat, the results left a slightly sour taste, and only exceeded the trifle when going too far. As such it may well provide for entertainment as a borrow, but I don't see this being as loved as Sam Savage's first book, Firmin.

I must thank the nice people at Orion Books for my review copy.

For a more nicely sustained look at an unreliable narrator in recent American history, you might struggle to best Indignation by Philip Roth.

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Buy The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage at


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