Sam Savage’s fourth novel finds his hero, Harold Nivenson, crumbling away into nothingness, both his body and his house becoming ever more unwelcome specters in his gentrifying neighborhood as he mourns the structure his days had when his dog was still alive. Consumed with bile, he looks on his neighbors with contempt as they bike in their ridiculous get-ups and avoid him on the sidewalk. He is, at first glance, like his house: a pathetic blight.
But Savage, who has created something of a late-life oeuvre examining the interior world of the end years of life, slowly unveils the human under the bitter old coot, and once again we are treated to this writer’s uniquely unflinching, painful yet beautiful examination of an aging, regretful intellectual and how a life story rarely has a logical ending that makes the beginning and middle parts make sense.
One can assume Savage writes with some authority on this subject. Savage got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale and worked such jobs as bicycle mechanic, crab fisherman and carpenter before publishing his first novel in 2006 at age 65. When a Savage character like Nivenson looks back at the foolish aspirations and delusions of his younger self, his insights ring with the kind of uncomfortable truth that can only come from hard-wrought wisdom.
Perhaps more so than any character Savage has yet created, Nivenson is looking back and thinking it all means nothing. Stirred to memories by the death of the most outsize persona in his life, the artist Meininger, Nivenson recalls when his house was an artists’ salon and he envisioned himself as an art collector and critic but now believes the chaos kept him from his own creative activities. “The interrupters camped in my house,” Nivenson complains, “eating my food, sleeping in every room, sleeping on sofas, rugs; on summer nights the porch was littered with them. There was always somebody around, under foot.” He fantasizes about spitefully destroying the valuable Meininger paintings that hang around his shambles of a house.
When his former wife, Moll, comes to take care of him amid his squalor, Nivenson weakly submits to her ministrations but at first ruefully imagines she’s come back thinking of Meininger, who had been her lover. But eventually the Zen sayings she hangs on the refrigerator seem less insipid and her presence more than a painful throwback to the Meininger years.
Though Nivenson never reaches the sort of transcendent pathos Savage created for his greatest creation, the titular rat in his debut novel, “Firmin,” the gradual easing of his bitterness into a kind of acceptance of life’s inherent meaninglessness is palpable and quietly profound. With graceful aplomb, Savage again punctures the delusion that one day we will look back on a long life and it will all make sense. “True stories are never the best stories,” Nivenson says, “because they lack a proper ending and a proper meaning, but they are the ones that are most faithful to life.”
Cherie Ann Parker is a Washington, D.C.,-based writer and book critic.