by E. JONES
Sam Savage, An Orphanage of Dreams (Coffee House Press, 2019), pp. 160.
This review was originally published in the Winter 2021 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
There are two important questions a reader should ask when experiencing a text: what transcends the contours of individuality within the realm of human experience? And how does it do so? The welcome paradox in answering the latter is that our considerations turn us back to the author, the individual whose thoughts and particular expression of those thoughts are the provocation for our own experience. When we read, we weave a cord of three threads: a specific individual’s experiences (author), our own experiences (reader), and the general pool of human experience—to and from which all people contribute and extract. We are fascinated by the telling of human experience, how it is told, and how it affects us as readers.
Sam Savage’s An Orphanage of Dreams is a collection of experiences heavily illustrated through allegory and zoomorphism. Overlaying characters with the names and attributes of various animals is the medium by which Savage treats the difficulties and conundrums of human situations. This medium is repeatedly applied to recycled themes of retrospection, change (desired and lamented), fragmented relationships, and loss. The style and tone of his prose shifts in alignment with the story he’s telling. Yet, there is a steady expression of thoughtfulness and resolution that is often characteristic of the passing of time and distance from certain memories. Indeed, several of his stories seem to be told by a narrator who has stopped to look over his shoulder, or someone else’s, after a sustained forward gaze, only to find he is further from the past than he realized. Savage brilliantly captures this moment of reflection or thoughtful reporting within the vignettes he constructs.
The rhythm of this collection is in the arrangement of its stories which moves like a revolving door between past and present. Consequently, the reader is consistently led to contrast memory and immediacy as she travels through their stories. The continuity between these two modes is that their stories often end in some sort of resolution be it intentional or otherwise. In “The Awakening,” the narrator recounts one of the many times he has tried to leave “the house.” He is nameless, but describes himself as “mid-forties, dark hair, of average good looks, though perhaps thinner than is considered healthy, standing at the front of an open gate.” He is pensive and reflective as he awaits the arrival of a bus which is soon to pass through his neighborhood. He recalls that his near-departures are repeatedly hindered by a concern that something in the house has not been tended to, without which there will be dire consequences. The story is a memory, unique in that it is the first time he attempts to leave and nearly accomplishes it. However, though freedom enticed, he was consumed by an internal debate as to whether or not he had unplugged the toaster oven. He is compelled to return to the house for assurance. Yet, even after he is assured and might return to the front gate in peace and anticipation of freedom, he is distracted by a smudge on the appliance’s glass door. This is the moment his resolve begins to unravel: “I was on the point of departure when I began to stay.” Simultaneously recalling and responding to the memory, the narrator acknowledges his absurd obsession and re-imagines a different outcome, “I could have… I could have… I could have… I could have.” This, of course, is moot as he has yet to leave and has developed a resolve that he never will. His opening words, “I know why I came. I don’t know why I stay” expose the toaster oven and like hindrances as mere decoys. He does not know why he stays, so neither can we. Whatever has recalled the memory, its service is not to provide an answer. Though this story is a particular case, though this memory is not our own, what transcends is a lived experience to which we can relate. A desire or compulsion to leave behind a relationship, habit, mentality, or place in pursuit of something more suited to our evolution, or one that calls to us. He could have “taken a plane back to America…[or] to San Rafael and Genoa, taken a room in the latter city, and begun research on a book about Columbus,” admitting, “That’s easy to see now.” In the final moments of this memory, as he watches the bus pass the house, his luggage abandoned on the stone steps, the narrator leaves us with this: “Shortly afterward several drops fell, so few they made scarcely a sound, while dark splotches the size of nickels appeared on the walk. Then, a little later still, the sun came back out.” The reader may infer a number of possibilities: He will try again and succeed! His lot is not as bad as it seems! What we infer, perhaps, is particular to our own experiences. Ultimately, the transcendence of such an experience is its ability to conjure an awareness of our own entrapments and their consequences.
The fluctuating contrast between present and past seems an experiment with various conclusions﹣ reconciliation, abandonment, sometimes there is no change at all. In “Sky,” Al arrives at a dinner party with his wife, Adele, whom he abandons on the steps of their host’s home. She is “a smallish chubby woman…medium-length blond hair, hazel eyes…ordinary” for whom he reveals a long-standing contempt throughout the tale. An encounter with “an extremely horizontal sky” that appears to be “lying down” has had a mysterious, immediately transformative effect on him and is the provocation of his abandonment of Adele. In keeping with the theme of broken relationships, “Cigarettes” stars a narrator overcome by the nostalgia of smoking, even though perpetuating the habit estranges him from his daughter. “Rita” ends with a fantasy scenario, though nothing changes in the physical world of the dreamer. She is a former lover of the story’s subject thrust into hypothetical scenes of present, her visage preserved in his imagination. “He sometimes has a weird kind of daydream. He is in line at the checkout. He turns around and she is standing there just as she used to be, as if there were no such thing as time.” A slight pivot leads us to a similar situation in “Thespa.” In her absence, her presence is sustained and re-imagined by a former lover through an assortment of objects. The narrator imagines himself mirroring Thespa’s movements, consequently disrupting the scene and objects she has left—and him with it. Imagination, though, is where action ends, and it is clear that he has yet to move since her departure.
Amidst the gems of Savage’s collection, “My Writing Life: A Confession in Fable” glitters brightest. Herein, the themes which thread his stories are drawn together through a single character. The story reports a pursuit of silence; the narrator writes “to soak up the noise within.” He is a scribbling wanderer, wandering the outskirts of cities and social scripts—
“I have been going a long time, and stop only to sleep and to eat, and to relieve myself in an alley or behind a tree…to rest on a bench or a rock, or just sitting on the ground or on a fallen log…or in the leaves…and sometimes I sleep in the leaves…and when it rains I don’t sleep at all but stand hard against the wall of some public building to get shelter from its roof.”
Ned, his name revealed rather late in the story, carries a small notebook in each breast pocket. Their pages ‘silence the noise within’, each filled and discarded as he wanders from city to city. “Ned” is the christening of a former lover, Molly. Eventually, Molly leaves and some time passes before he commences a search for her. Eventually, his commitment to the search leads him beyond the perimeter of the social and cultural sphere. As time passes, he becomes deeply reflective and regretful of youthful aimlessness, implying its role in Molly’s departure—
“Every morning, the moment she rose from bed, my Molly would go over to a calendar…and stand awhile just looking at it… After a good time contemplating it, she would reach up and tear the page off and say, “Well that’s that,” and throw the page in the trash can… Every morning the way she said it seemed to me sadder than the day before.”
Ned leaves a cartographical impression with his bike, his feet, his pages. There are four ‘signposts’ which guide his life’s travels: leaving his childhood home to follow people who seemed to be moving “with some purpose,” though this proves to be an illusion; searching for Molly; tracing the tracks of his stolen bike; the pokes and proddings of social authorities that push him to the margins when “presenting a hazard to the public.” Delivered in the past/present contrast pattern which characterizes the collection, Ned recalls his journey. Ultimately, wandering is the eternal present of this aged man. There is no resolution to this story, no movement from the margins to the middle, no ending—the story is driven by Ned’s desire for silence: “A silence within, genuine and profound, with which to meet the silence of the end, assuming there is an end.”
“My Writing Life: A Confession in Fable” is the longest story and one of the last. The four signposts of this tale are branches on which other stories seem to bud. This seems fitting as the tale reads autobiographically. In an interview with Kevin Larimer, Savage reveals an uneven journey to finding his life’s purpose.
“You write a poem, and you can say it was published, but no one reads the poem—a few other poets, maybe, but I didn’t know any of them. I thought, ‘Well hell.’ I wasn’t happy with it anyway, so I just sort of quit—gave up completely. I was fifty-five years old and I just gave up.”
Savage refers to this surrender as a “great death.” It is the intermission of a life as yet marked by a love of literature, radical politics, a brief first marriage, a second marriage and fatherhood. He studied philosophy at Yale, but was ultimately disillusioned by its inability to offer transcendent meaning for life. Following academia, he worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, crab fisherman. Savage believed that art was akin to religion: “It’s the only secular vehicle for transcendence we have. It’s an immediate self-validating experience. It lifts you beyond your mortal clay.”
His tendency to write protagonists who live on the margins of society appears motivated by his admission to never having felt at home anywhere. His tales can be read as clues to how he perceives and places himself in the world. Accordingly, Ned’s tale can be read as an allusion to Savage’s biography while working as a framework for its surrounding stories. “22 Stories” and “Adventures of Kiffler Wainscott” are narratives/sub-narratives in which the protagonists have failed to figure out their lot in life, to overcome an unspoken bitterness over life’s hindrances. Attitudes toward death are fairly nonchalant—its confrontation is varied and contingent. As Savage compiles his stories, his mode of confrontation seems pending. Diagnosed with emphysema in the 1970s, Savage tells Larimer, “‘I should’ve been dead thirty years ago…I didn’t think I was going to live very long.’’ Ned anticipates the silence that death will bring; “The Songwriter” sings a ‘song for the ages’ that melts the pains of death. Confronting death is part of lived experience and each story that addresses this final event of human life offers a unique mode for contemplation.
The robust and thoughtful character of An Orphanage of Dreams is owed to Savage’s ability to write captivating vignettes linked by invisible threads, while avoiding redundancy. Each story is its own, but their patterns—repeated themes of lived experience offered in a variety of relatable contexts and conclusions—are unmistakable. Their visibility is afforded by an intentional and self-conscious prose. Words will not be wasted – nor numbers, as he declined to mark the pages of his stories in the “Contents.” Read it in whichever order you’d like (as I did) and a localized intertextuality will inevitably emerge.