Books

Sam Savage's 'The Way of the Dog' Teaches Lessons in Art, Life, Love

Gina Webb
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)

The Way of the Dog is Sam Savage’s most elegiac, tender novel to date, and despite Nivenson’s vitriol, readers soon will recognize that his bark is worse than his bite.


The Way of the Dog

Publisher: Coffee House
Length: 152 pages
Author: Sam Savage
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-01
Amazon

“The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear,” Ernest Hemingway said, “or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.” With his fourth novel, The Way of the Dog, South Carolina native Sam Savage presents just such a ruined life — and the attempts to wrestle it into shape — in the story of former art collector and critic Harold Nivenson, a dying man who finds that the regrets of his past have become his constant companions.

After the death of a little dog whose care provided a comforting routine, Nivenson, in failing health and living in squalor, is bereft and aimless. “My life followed a dog’s rhythm,” Nivenson says, mourning the daily walks they took together. In the dog’s absence, he has let his house deteriorate, no longer cleans up after himself, can barely get around or go outdoors, and spends his days sleeping or staring out the windows.

By the time we meet him, Nivenson is nearly jumping out of his skin with disgust at his own helplessness. A relentless (and sometimes funny) critic of the neighbors he spies on, he also shares his impressions of how disappointing it is to see his once-bohemian neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. Nivenson reserves his most scathing commentary for the two characters — his ex-wife and estranged son — who come to care for him.

His first-person account, we soon learn, is gleaned from index cards, a vast jumble of notes that hopscotch from the present to the past — particularly a period when Nivenson was in his late 20s and managed to squander a small fortune in support of the arts.

The author of two books of art criticism, Nivenson is deeply conflicted over the art he once valued. He scorns his published work as “juvenile pamphlets”, and compares his decades of cumulative “scribbling” with dog droppings, hinting that for all the “thousands of scraps of paper” that make up his life’s work, none of it is worth anything because it doesn’t fit together and is nothing but “minor art.” But the “index card habit” that Nivenson sneers at — this work that is barely worth stuffing into “drawers and boxes”, these fragments, allegories, snatches of memoir, this enlightening ragbag of philosophy and literary references — eventually becomes the novel we’re reading.

Savage is known for the international best-seller Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006). His previous books have established him as a connoisseur of solitude, regrets and broken dreams. He was 66 when he wrote Firmin, the life story of a bookstore rat who laments his failure to write the great American novel.

Savage continued to chart the interior landscape of disappointment in 2009’s The Cry of the Sloth, a comic portrait of a would-be writer who sinks under the weight of letters he writes in hopes of rescuing himself from literary oblivion. In Glass (2011), an elderly woman charged with writing a preface to one of her late husband’s novels instead breaks her long silence to piece together memories of their life together.

The regret that eats at Nivenson has its origins in his long-ago friendship with a painter named Peter Meinenger, a role model whose talent and prodigious output swamped Nivenson’s more timid artistic efforts. With money he received after the death of his parents, Nivenson financed Meinenger’s career. At the peak of his success the two of them attracted a Warholian factory of hangers-on who camped out in Nivenson’s home until Meinenger’s abrupt departure and subsequent suicide.

Though brief, this dose of concentrated fame and fortune now embodies every failure and shame Nivenson met then or since. It’s an era tied up with Moll, the shadowy ex-wife who refuses to let Nivenson “die like this”, and with a painting he calls “the Meinenger nude” that he can neither bear to look at nor stand to sell.

However, a closer reading connects the dots of Nivenson’s bitterness, anxious obsessing about the authenticity of art vs. “essentially worthless daubings”, and profound loneliness to gradually reveal the shape of one writer’s battles with identity and legitimacy.

From the childhood jigsaw puzzles he once adored to Moll’s gentle efforts to encourage him to keep writing, the journey Nivenson describes reflects the artist’s bone-deep conflict with success and failure, the struggle to make art out of life, and the lifelong attempt to validate one’s work.

The Way of the Dog is Savage’s most elegiac, tender novel to date, and despite Nivenson’s vitriol, readers soon will recognize that his bark is worse than his bite. For this besieged but genuine artist and writer, grace arrives as a second chance to appreciate, in what time he has left, the fact that life — and art — is never about getting everything right. Sometimes, the missing pieces can be found only in the wreckage.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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