FIRMIN. Sam Savage
162 pgs. Coffee House Press. 2006
Who would have thought a rodent might be so entertaining? Yet we've grown up on such tales of humanized mice and rats. Why not a highly literate one? Even while the ever clever and articulate Firmin declares: "The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature, including mouse literature. I despise good-natured old Ratty in 'The Wind in the Willows.' I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones."
Peppery vermin, isn't he? Such is Firmin's charm. Born the runt in a litter of 13 rats to poor, ignorant, inebriated mother rat Flo, he resorts to eating the tasty paper of book pages that Flo has used to make their nest, tucked away in the back shelves of a Boston bookstore. His siblings, who nurse first, have only disdain for him, and Firmin soon finds his own way in the world, maneuvering by story. From eating books, he evolves to insatiable consumer of books, reading through all the classics, all the sciences, current and historical events, children's stories, romances, plays. He reads it all.
To be a literate rat makes Firmin painfully aware of his odd place in the world. He calls it his "vast canyon of loneliness." He suffers at his inability to fit into the world about which he reads, at his inability to express himself in spoken language. Author Sam Savage writes some of his most poignant lines in describing for us that vast canyon of loneliness in Firmin due to his inability to communicate:
"Despite my intelligence, my tact, the delicacy and refinement of my feelings, my growing erudition, I remained a creature of great disabilities. Reading is one thing, speaking is another... Loquacious to the point of chatter, I was condemned to silence. The fact is, I had no voice. All the beautiful sentences flying around in my head like butterflies were in fact flying in a cage they could never get out of. All the lovely words that I mulled and mouthed in the strangled silence of my thought were as useless as the thousands, perhaps millions, of words that I had torn from books and swallowed, the incohesive fragments of entire novels, plays, epic poems, intimate diaries, and scandalous confessions--all down the tube, mute, useless, and wasted... I laugh, in order not to weep--which, of course, I also cannot do. Or laugh either, for that matter, except in my head, where it is more painful than tears."
Savage has created in such memorable passages for us a rodent that is so human that we relate as one life form to another, for all creatures, surely, have suffered such isolation at some point in our lives, unable to express what weighs most on our hearts.
The story of Firmin takes us by the paw through the bookstore and out into the streets of Boston, into the lives of various misfit humans, including the lonely science fiction writer Jerry Magoon who keeps the rat as adored pet without ever discovering Firmin's secret. If perhaps there is any part of this truly unique and engaging tale lacking, otherwise exquisitely written, then it is the episodes of Firmin's "lowlife" penchant to hang out at the old theatre, Rialto, into the wee hours of the night, sitting amongst drooling old lechers, even while openly acknowledging his own "perversions," and watching what he refers to as his "Lovelies." It is perhaps a bit too much for my sensibilities and suspended disbelief to imagine a rat so craving the human female species the way that he does... oh, shudder... but then, I suppose, that is what makes Firmin a rat, after all, and the men in the dark theatre gaping alongside him, eyes aglow, rather rat-like, too.
Regardless, this is a tale not to be missed. It is a gem: unique, literary, smart, and surprisingly moving.