Set in Boston, Sam Savage’s fascinating satiric novel chronicles the sad life of a literature-loving rodent.
“Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitian Lowife” by Sam Savage. (Coffeehouse Press)
By Shannon Mullen
Born in the basement of Pembroke Books, a used book store in Boston, Firmin is the 13th ratling to Flo, an alcoholic “tosspot” of a mother who has only twelve nipples. Forced from the teat by his brothers and sisters, Firmin begins to consume the shredded paper Flo used to make her nest, which he soon discovers are the pages of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” He eventually learns to read, and so begins his “unusual mental development.”
Firmin is hairier, uglier, and punier than his siblings. He shares neither their ignorance of nor nonchalance about their species-related shortcomings. Instead, his love of literature contributes to an acute self-consciousness of his intellectual capacity and the inevitable torment it will bring him. He understands the grotesque irony of his own insignificance — all his bright hopes are destined for extinction.
In “Firmin,” author Sam Savage makes use of anthropomorphism to create an intriguing satire that celebrates an obsessive love of literature. Firmin, a rat doomed by his highbrow fantasies, is far from the cuddly, wise-cracking animals in the popular cartoons from Pixar.
Sophisticated readers will appreciate the book’s homage to the writing giants, but Mickey Mouse fans should steer clear — this not a children’s book. Firmin has contempt for his fellow vermin; he will only admit he is a rat in his most depressed moments. He despises books about rodents, including such “affable, shuffling, cute” characters as Stuart Little and Ratty from “The Wind in the Willows.”
In his own powerfully imaginative mind, Firmin is not a rat. He is adept at transporting himself to a carefully manufactured reality in which he plays Cole Porter and Gershwin on his piano and looks and sings like Fred Astaire. The book’s wonderfully arch illustrations bring out the weird pathos of the contrast.
Accordingly, there are few adventures in the outer world for Firmin. When his relatives abandon Pembroke Books for the world “up top,” Firmin remains a bookworm, learning his way around the walls of the store and finding the best spots for observing his first love, proprietor Norman Shine. A hole in the ceiling gives him the perfect rat’s-eye-view to look down on Shine’s quiet life and the bookstore goings-on. Savage’s skillful prose is attentive to the details: “The clutter on the desk, the upright steel spike stacked to its tip with a ragged foliage of impaled receipts, the shiny arms of the chair, and of course the red cushion itself with its buttocks-shaped depression in the center, possessed an aura of seriousness and dignity that considering my background, I found perfectly irresistible.”
For Firmin, Pembroke Books is both a prison and personal paradise. When Shine locks up for the night, the rat goes to work at infesting, which consists of his consumption of the store’s inventory. He soon abandons eating the books for reading them, seeking to deliver himself from his life as a rat to something, anything, better.
Occasionally, and mostly out of necessity, Firmin ventures outside the store to look for food. Savage locates Pembroke Books in Boston’s former Scollay Square as it was in 1960, before the city demolished its theaters and tenements to make way for the state and federal buildings of Government Center. Here’s where the book will tantalize history buffs — in a gloomy homage, Savage borrows details from the actual place, picking up the true story of its descent from a stylish Boston address to the city’s seat for moral transgression, at the moment when bulldozers and wrecking balls wait ominously at its outskirts.
An author’s note says Savage “permitted Firmin to distort events and geography for the sake of the story.” But he uses real landmarks and characters, including the Old Howard Theater and a “painless dentist,” referenced in some historical accounts as Dr. William Thomas Morton, who may have been the first dentist to use ether as an anesthetic, in his 1800s Scollay Square office. Even Firmin’s beloved bookstore home is modeled after Savage’s onetime haunt, the Brattle Book Shop.
Despite his smart homage to Boston ‘s past, Savage does not trouble himself to preserve or maintain reality in his fiction, at least where Firmin is concerned. He becomes so trapped by his obsessive romance with being human that he begins to recall artificial, nonsensical experiences: “I was talking to a man in a bar and he asked me what I do for a living” and “All my life I have taken pains to avoid them — I am referring to psychiatrists.” I found this random memory malarkey unnecessary and distracting. Though all this makes the book’s synthesis of rat and human more interesting, it’s a touch perverse.
Also, Firmin’s digressions into dark tangents suggest that the author, not his character, is taking to his soapbox, and the rat’s relationship with literature and daydreams, solitude and silence may be Savage’s own. It is my strong suspicion that Savage’s first novel may also be his distorted version of a memoir, given the author’s own admission that “Firmin” is “as close to an autobiography” as he’ll ever write.
Ultimately, Shine betrays Firmin’s love, and the rat is forced to move on. His pathetic attempt to reach out to other humans leaves him downtrodden and broken. But Savage takes pity and rescues his whiskered anti-hero from oblivion. Firmin is taken in by “the smartest man in the world,” hack-author Jerry Magoon, and the two set out to live happily ever after, or as long as they both shall live. With this darkly charming book, Savage has let his imagination out of the cage.