"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 eventually becomes the novel we're reading.
"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.