Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

As I noted below, Firmin by Sam Savage came to my attention via its designation as the Lit Blog Co-op’s Autumn Read This! selection. The book was different enough and short enough that I decided to join in. So on a recent trip to DC I packed the book for my plane and metro reading. As a small paperback that’s easy to digest and read whenever you have a spare moment, it was perfect. Interestingly enough, Ed recommended the book after reading it on his way back from DC from BEA.

To get a feel for what the book is about here is the Publishers Weekly summary:

Savage’s sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring’s cradle. Soon left to fend for himself, Firmin finds that books are his only friends, and he becomes a hopeless romantic, devouring Great Books—sometimes literally. Aware from his frightful reflection that he is no Fred Astaire (his hero), he watches nebbishy bookstore owner Norman Shine from afar and imagines his love is returned until Norman tries to poison him. Thereafter he becomes the pet of a solitary sci-fi writer, Jerry Magoon, a smart slob and drinker who teaches Firmin about jazz, moviegoing and the writer’s life. Alas, their world is threatened by extinction with the renovation of Scollay Square, which forces the closing of the bookstore and Firmin’s beloved Rialto Theater.

So what to make of a story about a rat who can read books? A number of people have, I think accurately, described it as a “comic gem.” Savage brings a sentimental and yet wry sense of humor as he – as PW puts it – “embodies writerly self-doubts and yearning in a precocious rat.” One accomplishment of the work is how Savage uses a lowly rat to allow us to see the world of Scollay Square and 1960’s Boston. He makes us feel the attachments and sentiments that accrue in even the most down-and-out neighborhood and reminds us of the damage inflicted by “urban renewal.”

Not surprising in a story set in a bookstore, Savage weaves literary references throughout the story. Firmin in some ways perfectly embodies a certain artistic character type. His imagination, and the books he consumes, provide endless hours of entertainment and open up a world far beyond his mundane existence. But this tendency to live inside his own head, and his inability to communicate, isolate him from the larger world. He seeks to escape from self-doubt and anxiety but soon fantasy and reality blur. By placing these musings on what Booklist calls “the costs and rewards of literary illusions” in the mind of a rat, and in somewhat fantastical circumstances, Savage raises difficult questions without sounding harsh or losing his sense of humor. Hence, the “comic gem” label.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the question of just who Firmin is or whether he is to be taken literally or figuratively. As Ed noted in recommending the book:

Firmin challenges our narrative assumptions by presenting us with a tale told by a rat, signifying perhaps both nothing and everything, about the relationship between reality and fiction. It can be read as a literal entertainment or a multilayered parable about gentrification and the palliatives and pitfalls of imagination.

This question was also discussed in a further post and a response by the author. Ed raises the question again:

If we consider the possibility that Firmin himself is not a rat, that this identity is a fictive construct he clings to like a poor man’s palliative, then we must consider that the universe around Firmin is also a fictional construct. And yet, if fiction stems from some kind of inspiration from the real world, what (if we are to accept this “Firmin ain’t a rat” hypothesis) is real?

Savage seems to say both and neither:

Ed, finally, brings up the question of whether, if Firmin is a human, the rat is not as much a fictive construct as the books are. As I said, I really don’t have any answer to these questions. Indeed, I very much hope they are not answerable in any definitive way, and that Ed and Jessica are both right, the way certain clever figures can morph back and forth between being, say, a picture of a rabbit or a picture of a duck. And though the picture is both things equally, it cannot be both at once. (Anne’s post on shifting perspectives hits the mark here.) On the one hand, on the level of narrative, Jessica has to be correct, or we don’t have a story at all. It is, after all, about the adventures of a rat, tail, tunnels, and all. On the other hand, we have to wonder what sort of existence this story has. After all, there really aren’t any literary rats. What happened to the story about a rat that Jerry Magoon was writing and that, after Jerry’s death, Firmin cannot find in his notebooks, where the word rat does not appear even once?

My take? As I was reading it I felt that the lines between reality and imagination were blurring and mixing together. At times you certainly get the sense that Firmin could easily be a imaginative device used by a person to avoid facing their own life and circumstances. It also has a postmodern sense about it as literary imagination raises questions about what is reality and what is fiction. Do literary characters become real in some sense? What role does our imagination play in reality? Is the line between the two always crystal clear? The book never resolves these questions, but instead allows them to linger just out of reach.

As I hope the above has illustrated, Firmin is an entertaining and interesting book. It can easily be read as simply a short comic story or it can be explored in a more psychological way. Either way, it certainly rewards the little time it takes to read this slim volume. If you are tired of epic stories and “serious” works, you might give this little book a try. I am glad I did.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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