“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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