By Jeff Bursey (Reviewed from uncorrected galley)
Sam Savage is the author of The Cry of the Sloth (2009) and Glass (2011), short novels that open as one person’s life has become almost unbearable. The first-person narrators, literate and intelligent, have two fates open to them: to die miserably, or to see a chance of escape from the harassment of hectic thoughts and the treacherous condition of deteriorating bodies. (Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife , an award-winning work, is about a literate rat, but his struggle and end are as affecting as that of the human characters Savage has created.)
The Way of the Dog begins quietly, like Savage’s other works, with readers closely following the mind of Harold Nivenson, a man of undisclosed age living alone in his crumbling home. On one of many bits of paper torn from a larger sheet that make up the book he indicates the situation he is in:
I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.
I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.
I am not well.
A small cast is introduced. After Roy come the neighbours (none who Nivenson seems to have talked with), friends (a woman named Molly, and mention of a couple of others), and his son Sidney (called Alfie, and as unwelcome as his third wife Janine and their two children). The discrete elements present in the first pages—the illness, the dog, a gun, what people up the street do—join with items from Nivenson’s personal history as the novel advances, in a crab-like way, to an ending.
What links The Way of the Dog to The Cry of the Sloth and Glass is the focus on the smallness of one individual’s life; what sets it apart from those two books is Nivenson’s interaction with people. Savage usually keeps his set clean, with a minimum of figures, but in this novel he balances more voices and presences.
Whether looking out the living room window and talking to himself or Molly or out walking slowly on his two canes and seeing this or that person who lives nearby, Nivenson’s easily aroused anger waits for any occasion, gesture, physical appearance or fashion choice to pass judgment. Of a family whose mother is ill, he thinks: “Her illness has cast a pall over the family. It has stunted her children, who are large, handsome, but stunted emotionally. It shows in their expressions, their body language.” When describing a middle-aged couple that moves into a house down the street, Nivenson’s comments swell into sociological commentary:
The two of them strike me as typical university figures. A pair of university figures, I think, working in a department of the so-called humanities. A typical pair of shameless pretenders, who have long since lost faith in the humanities. Universities teem with such people, who in clever career moves have turned themselves into the foremost apologists and intellectual defenders of contemporary media trash culture. The university as presently constituted—minus those departments within it that now form a nearly self-contained scientific-technical institute, that have already effectively quarantined themselves from the rest—is a death-trap for the mind, I have long thought.
Nivenson’s rigid, over-reaching perceptions are self-defeating; dependent on ‘knowing’ what others are like from one or two mannerisms, he falls into an ugly mental trap. The degraded condition of his home is a mirror of that. (Savage pays attention to the size, layout, furniture and geographic location wherein his characters are placed.)
Initially a reader might assume that the sweeping indictments stem from Nivenson’s distress at his illness. That assumption is overturned as we learn select parts of his history. His parents, whom he disliked intensely, died when a ship cut through their boat, but we don’t know their names or why he received a small fortune from this accident. He doesn’t like his unnamed sister and brother. He had a wife (also unnamed) but gave her away to a friend, and his son is from some woman (again, unnamed). Refusing to name others denies their existence and individuality. It also keeps the focus on him. “By the time I was eighteen I was already practically insane. By the time I was twenty I was already completely crazy. I must have been partly crazy for a long time before that, perhaps from birth.” The intensity of madness is seen in the emphasized words that appear on almost every page as he throws out his denunciations.
Perhaps because of the craziness he felt growing up, Nivenson states he has “a gift for sniffing out misery.” Since he believes the world is a miserable place he’ll see it everywhere, much as to a hammer everything is a nail. The re-appearance of Alfie, and Molly especially, brings unexpected tenderness into his life, and initially their presence is perceived as threatening. They want to clean the house, improve the grounds, and get appraised the many paintings Nivenson bought, years ago, from people who turned out to be insignificant figures. This plan is the catalyst for an examination of his relationship with a major figure from his past mentioned earlier in The Way of the Dog, a “world-class art entrepreneur… an art-genius impersonator,” his nemesis, the German-born painter Peter Meininger.
Years ago both men lived in the house as friends. “The Meininger period strictly considered lasted thirty-eight months, but its effect on my life extended forward and backwards from that time… I was able to look back on the chaos of my previous life, on the active flailing about that was the chief feature of that life, and see it as waiting for Meininger. As if all my life I had been searching for the Meininger period.” It’s as if Godot had arrived. The friendship sours when Nivenson can’t understand a particular work his mentor has created. “‘You don’t know how to look at a painting, do you?’” asks Meininger. Now that he has “been dismissed,” his “frank and open admiration of Meininger became a disguise for [his] repressed loathing of Meininger.”
Hatred entered Nivenson’s life early on. His siblings would steal one piece from every puzzle he started, and even if he wasn’t sure they did, the anxiety that there would be a hole in the picture at the end “destroy[ed] the pleasure [he] might otherwise have derived from the puzzle.” Without much more explanation, Nivenson says he “became, in my family and for my family, and ultimately for myself as well, the representation of failure.” His sister and brother, due to the inaction of their parents, “bear the entire blame for my situation, a situation that amounts to a disability…”
Nothing is his fault, in this version of events, though he does castigate himself at different times for his pomposity and failures. Allowing for exaggeration and errors of memory, a reader would think that with this background, combined with the indulgence shown to Meininger, the bohemian lifestyle Nivenson encouraged in his house, and a lack of discipline, he could never be anything but one of the many “minor artists” he once knew. He sums up his career: “Instead of a body of work I have an index-card habit.” (Index cards—notes for a body of work—are not linked to the ruined puzzles with their holes.)
His minor status makes it unsurprising that he criticizes his neighbour, Professor Enid Diamond, for writing many books: “She is a literary industrial-scale waste producer.” Of course, he has never read her. Recalling Andre Breton’s famous saying that shooting into a crowd would be a simple surrealist act, Nivenson declares: “It has occurred to me that I can shoot Professor Diamond off her bicycle.” Yet when she deliberately avoids Nivenson on the street he doesn’t think that it may be due to the waves of animosity and jealousy coming from him. Seeing links between things is not his talent, but then, he does rely more on his nose.
Soon after Molly moves in she tells him: “‘I am not going to let you die like this.’” Buddhist sayings magnetized to the refrigerator encourage letting go, and we can see that this is the farthest thing possible from Nivenson’s emotionally immature state. He is not eager to let go in that way, but he does think of letting go when he reflects on the gun under his bed, and on the suicides of various artists. In the past, when he began a natural decline, he was saved by the appearance of Roy: “I would have pitched backwards years ago, but I held on to Roy.” Once his dog dies he does nothing to stop his decline, and works to further it, but Molly and Alfie frustrate this plan.
What we witness at the end of The Way of the Dog is a minor rally, fitting for a minor artist, from thoughts of death. Nivenson is urged to continue living once he becomes aware of Molly’s poor health and what she means to him. In a way, her late influence, filled with cleaning and cooking, has counteracted the earlier, insidious and warping influence of Meininger. In this expressive and finely written novel, perhaps Sam Savage is indicating that a frail pact can be made by two adults to continue on living, and if it includes care and love, it will keep people alive, not in a blissful peace, but in a cessation, however short, from illness and painful memories.
The Way of the Dog, by Sam Savage | Coffee House Press | 152 pages | $16.50 | paper | ISBN # 978-1566893121