By Jeff Bursey
Sam Savage’s fiction is filled with characters that stand askew from life. They are outcasts, isolates, frustrated or insignificant pseudo-artists, the elderly, and those who may be suffering from an undiagnosed mental condition. They can also be animals, as in his first serious novel (The Criminal Life of Effie O.  he considered an “amusement”1http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2015/05/11/it-is-not-a-novelists-job-to-be-merciful-an-interview-with-sam-savage-jeff-bursey/), Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), which became an unexpected success, especially in Europe. It is a first-person account by a literate rat who, like every lead character in his novels, finds communicating difficult: “With what I had in the way of feet and claws, I found it impossible to stammer out even the most rudimentary phrases…Slapping my chest now, then crossing my legs, then curling up in a ball, I flung myself frantically about like a man with his clothes on fire. It was useless.” Andrew Whittaker of The Cry of the Sloth (2009), a self-styled literary editor, has no problem articulating his thoughts in letters and lists, but they are often petty and mean-minded. With Glass (2011), we encounter Edna, whose predilection, or mania, is to retype books and articles, and who was once married to a modestly successful author. She lives alone in an apartment whose windows get dirtier each day, has pets but no friends, and seems destined for a sad and unnoticed death. Art provides no solace to these characters, nor to Harold Nivenson, the narrator of The Way of the Dog (2013), who once worked in the art world but who, now much older, spies and comments sharply on his neighbours, all while missing Roy, his recently dead dog. It Will End with Us (2014) presents us with Eve and her almost apocalyptic view of the world as its environmental degradation preys on her mind. Her cast of thinking is in keeping with her predecessors, and as Savage himself said, “All my narrators are, one way or the other, in the process of dying.”2http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2015/05/11/it-is-not-a-novelists-job-to-be-merciful-an-interview-with-sam-savage-jeff-bursey/ What might readers expect, then, from his final work, a collection of short fictions and a concluding poem? Orphanages do not have positive associations for most people, and an orphanage of dreams, to me, summons up an institution crammed with unwanted nightmares.
As a Savage reader would expect, the contents freely mingle dry humour and pessimism, and the occasional taste for the absurd, as well as a preoccupation with the animal world. In “Animal Crackers,” five creatures have human traits laid over their own. Here is the entry, worth quoting in full, on the wolverine:
It is always angry. It takes medicine for this. It has tried meditation, long-distance running, yoga, nothing helps. It tried golf, but that made it angrier. It looks like a portly and well-fed bear though it is constantly afraid of starving. It is fond of moose. It is a noisy eater. It sits at the counter in the diner and people stare. It wears a brown soup-stained cardigan that it never washes. It complains to anyone who will listen. When it was still young it went off to London, because it wanted to improve itself. It found a room in Ealing. That was in 1963. It bought a trench coat. It tightened the belt across its belly and turned the collar up. It bought a hat. It made sandwiches and ate them in Hyde Park. It did not want to be recognized. One night it went to Covent Garden to see Margot Fonteyn dance with Rudolf Nureyev, who had just defected from the Soviet Union. It kept its hat on. People were looking at it. They were wondering what a wolverine was doing at Covent Garden. Nureyev danced. It was the most beautiful thing the wolverine had ever seen. It was so beautiful the wolverine began to cry, and the block of anger inside it melted and flowed away with the tears.
That was a long time ago. The Soviet Union is gone. Nureyev is gone. The wolverine is old, it has forgotten the forest, it has forgotten London, it sits at the counter, tears at its food, and complains.
Among the many things a reader might fasten on in that sketch are the ways civilization fails to appease the non-human animal for long, that the wolverine is “old,” and that it complains. These are characteristics also found in a piece as remote, in external respects, from the thoughts of an animal in “Sky,” where Al and Adele, a married couple, each of whom is around fifty, visit friends of theirs. This is their last night together, though no indication is given of that until Al suddenly drives away. His final thought is this: “The sky had changed, but I couldn’t tell if it had woken up or died.” The natural world, of trees and flowers and such, rarely appears, but when it does, as here, it signifies an upheaval and a change of status, usually not in a happy way. Both Al and the wolverine complain, and they are no different from how another male narrator feels about himself: “He studied his face in the window glass. He looked terribly tired, even depressed, he wasn’t getting enough sleep. He didn’t know how much longer he could go on like this. He was forty-eight years old, he had already had most of the life he was ever going to have.”
The collection is filled with men (most often) who sense that their lives, and their relationships with a loved one or with society, are in a terminal state. There is never the possibility of repair. “Cigarettes” features a tenant and his landlady who share little else but commerce and nicotine. (As Savage had alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which compromises the lungs, there’s a delightful black humour underneath this piece.) “Tipped back in the chair, facing my landlady, whom I don’t particularly like, the two of us not exchanging a word, just smoking—that’s as good as it gets.” They are marginalized because they smoke—the man’s daughter doesn’t want to visit too often due to the smell on her clothes that persists—and though that brings them together, it isn’t a solid foundation, more a rickety lean-to, similar to the frail bonds found in the social circle of the older men depicted in “Klatsch”: “Occasionally, it is true, they would turn on an absent member and gossip about him in a way that was sometimes vicious, but face-to-face they kept things amiable. He was never absent, the one person who had never missed a klatsch, because living alone, having no family nearby, he had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning.” Yoking unpleasant or awkward people together with social occasions and the subsequent expectation that they will be better as a unit than they are singly—an expectation guaranteed never to be met—is a prevalent feature of Savage’s fiction.
Many of the tales in An Orphanage of Dreams are quite short. “22 Stories” brings together microfictions that neatly condense a life while rarely going in an expected direction. “911” opens with a discussion among family members about calling the police, but “Carol urged them to think of Grandmother, of how frightening that would be for her.” It ends with everyone agreeing “that she would die of fright if they shot the door lock off. ‘They were together sixty-four years and he had it coming,’ Carol said, and nobody could argue with that.” Where, one wonders, do these characters go from here? In another of those numbered tales, “Old Pals,” the narrator says that he and the other four “loudmouths” in the car, his friends (though that word is never used), don’t know what to do to make their lives better. “If we lived in villages we could go into the mountains to pray.” Parks, let alone churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques, are clearly out of the question. “All we have is each other. Sometimes we drive around for hours, smoking and talking. Nobody wants to go home.” This speaks as much to a loss of purpose as to a loss of habitat—the displaced animal tropes come to mind—when “home” is more a social construct and a convenient word for a ceiling, a floor, and walls, than a place of contentment and safety shared with loved ones.
“My Writing Life: A Confession in Fable” is the sole long piece in the book. An old man, whose memory has been permanently affected by blows to the head, such that he can no longer remember his name, his family, or much at all, recounts how he writes things down in notebooks: “I bend over, place my face close to the page, and set down whatever thing has been nagging at me. And that done, I resume my journey with a new spring to my step, and I might even swing my arms as I go.” After scrawling down his thoughts, invariably with a pencil, he crosses it out, tears the page from the book, and tosses it away. He is not trying to be a writer, but to drown “the noise” he hears consistently. Yet this doesn’t mean his ego and his desire to be heard can be entirely repressed, for on occasion he’ll leave a piece of paper weighed down by a stone on a bench for another person to come across. “But struck through or x-ed over, the writing stays legible, should anyone care to read it, the x-ing and the striking signaling more my own relinquishment of the bit of life I have pressed into the words than any attempt to conceal them. I leave them legible out of vanity, I suppose, or loneliness, imagining as I walk along that somewhere behind me someone will pick up the page from where I threw it.” Reviewers may suspect that this is close to how Savage viewed his writing life, yet instead of noise, as he stated, now and then something clear and pure could be discerned:
I write the first paragraphs, more or less out of the blue, without knowing who is speaking or where it is going. Mostly those paragraphs go nowhere. But rarely (meaning it has happened five times) several other paragraphs follow, I catch a voice, a way of speaking and writing unique to that character…. I don’t of course mean an audible voice: a way of speaking, a way of seeing the world from an angle so specific that it defines the character of the person who is viewing the world in that way.3http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2015/05/11/it-is-not-a-novelists-job-to-be-merciful-an-interview-with-sam-savage-jeff-bursey/
With An Orphanage of Dreams, we hear Savage’s voice for, quite possibly, the last time, as he died on January 17 of this year, only a few days after the book’s official release. In these short fictions and “The Adventures of Kiffler Wainscott,” the poem that closes the book, as well as in his novels, characters are provided an entryway into our world and an opportunity to be listened to, if only for a time. “There had to be music inside him, if he had feelings like that,” the subject of “Wallflower” believes, “he was sure it was inside him, locked up in there, and he couldn’t understand why it would not come out.” With his last literary breath, Sam Savage has once again given readers insight into those we may think to pass by hurriedly or who we might not notice at all.
Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.