Firmin, by Sam Savage

Sam Savage’s Firmin is an odd but interesting tale of a rat who grows up on a diet (literally) of classic fiction and a university’s worth of nonfiction. Near the beginning of the book, Firmin says:

My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy–a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned–though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavor–sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. (p. 27*)

His whole experience of the world is filtered through his reading. In fact, there are quotes from all kinds of books in Firmin. Thus, Firmin is a pedantic little booger, but his erudition elevates the story from being just an elegy for Boston’s old Scollay Square and a dying bookstore.

349164Firmin’s introduction reminds me a lot of the opening of Tristram Shandy. He even starts the book before his birth in the bottom of Norman Shine’s used bookstore. Being the runt of the litter, Firmin makes do by eating the pages of an old copy of Moby Dick. From there, he actually learns to read and enjoy the books in the more usual way. He starts to explore the shop and read even more. He starts to feel a kinship with Norman, until Norman betrays Firmin by treating him like a rat. Shortly after recovering from his near poisoning, Firmin makes the acquaintance of Joe Moogan. Moogan is a strange hippie who fixes broken electronics and writes odd apocalyptic science fiction novels. Joe is a sweet old soul, though, and he and Firmin develop as much of a friendship as they can, given that Firmin can’t speak.

In the background of all this is the destruction of Scollay Square. Once a thriving part of Boston, Scollay Square has become a seedy area. The city has decided to renovate the area, but they need to bulldoze the entire square to do it. The businesses fail, one by one. Norman’s bookstore is one of the last to go.

Over the course of the novel, we go from picaresque to tragedy. Firmin, pessimistic though he is, is an excellent narrator. Getting the story from a rat’s eye view is an interesting experience. Though it has more downs than ups, it’s still a very entertaining read.

* From the kindle edition.

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