Reflective, engaging and challenging all describe Madison local Sam Savage’s newest short novel, “The Way of the Dog,” due out this February.
Savage’s latest follows a doubtful and dying artist, Harold Nivenson, in his old age. With Nivenson as narrator, the novel bounces back and forth between Nivenson’s past and present. He reflects on his past relationships and how they have brought him to where he is. In particular, he gets hung up on his relations with his old rival and/or “friend,” Peter Meininger, and how he has left Nivenson where he is now.
Nivenson mourns the decline of true art and becomes an observer of his neighborhood rather than a participant. He contemplates suicide but finds a reason to live in his dog, Roy.
Savage develops Nivenson as a complex and disconnected individual through his detached paragraph style. Paragraphs range from a single sentence to long flowing paragraphs. The constant breaks set the paragraphs up as Nivenson’s own thoughts written down on the note cards he obsessively carries around and jots tidbits down on.
The reader is drawn in and starts to relate to Nivenson’s cynicism, which is all too evident in the beginning of the novel. I myself started rethinking the progression, or deterioration, of art—scandalous for an ArtsEtc. writer. However, Nivenson begins to accept the past for what it was and live in the moment. He starts to take on the nature he saw in his dog, in line with “the way of the dog,” one might say.
Savage draws the reader in further by putting emphasis on certain words by using italics. It draws attention to certain words in detached paragraphs; the italics seem to set the tone for that particular “note card” or thought before it breaks and gives way to the next. The italics create a visual difference and seem to pop straight out of the reading, giving a theme for where Nivenson is mentally at a given point. The reader is able to follow the character development from adamant doubter and critic to his acceptance and inner peace.
Nivenson’s separation and physical decay pairs with his deteriorating house, emphasizing how both no longer “fit in” with the neighborhood. He often observes the neighbors through his window, which furthers his separation from the more progressive neighborhood. He is physically separated from the neighbors who actively avoid him and his clear acceptance of personal decay. He refuses to keep up with his house, or himself, and keeps all the paintings from the rival he seems to detest. Savage is highlighting Nivenson’s ties to the past and an unwillingness to let go until the very end. The cantankerous Nivenson clearly doubts his past, but he also shuns the future of his neighborhood with defiance as he holds onto his decaying home and yard.
Savage manages to get his readers emotionally invested and questions the idea of “progression” in the arts, yet he also highlights the importance of art and the inner peace it can bring.