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Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

The Well-read Rat

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
Sam Savage
Coffee House Press (2006)
ISBN 1-56689-181-7

Review by Robert Gray


Buy now from Amazon! Firmin, the protagonist in Sam Savage's novel, is a well-read, introspective, loyal, caring, observant, and utterly sympathetic character. He's also a rat, albeit an overachieving rat (within the limitations of his species, to his dismay, for he can neither speak nor write), whose life story is told in this smart, playful, painful, and ultimately compelling exploration of, oddly enough, what it means to be human in an often inhuman world.

In the early hours of a cold, damp November morning in 1960, Firmin and his twelve siblings are born in the basement of a bookstore on Scollay Square, the famous and infamous--not to mention imminently doomed--Boston neighborhood. Firmin's troubled newborn existence as the ill-fated thirteenth child ("All of us were soon fighting it out over twelve tits...") leads him to an early diet of anything at hand, which, given his surroundings, turns out to be paper in his nest: "If you are hungry enough, you will eat anything." Gradually, his hunger drives him to nearby books, where he feasts on the great works, at once moldy, dusty, and illuminating.

Firmin's unusual diet has extraordinary intellectual side effects, and in time he evolves from a literal consumer of texts ("My devourings at first were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy--a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned...") to a literary one:

I also noticed that each flavor--and, as time passed and my senses grew more acute, the flavor of each page, each sentence, and finally each word--brought with it an array of images, representations in the mind of things I knew nothing about from my limited experiences in the so-called real world: skyscrapers, harbors, horses, cannibals, a flowering tree, an unmade bed, a drowned woman, a flying boy... .At first I just ate, happily gnawing and chewing, guided by the dictates of taste. But soon I began to read here and there around the edges of my meals.

Firmin learns to feed his body more traditionally--a seedy movie house nearby provides a steady diet of tasty treats as well as irresistible films--as he eventually finds his way out of the basement to the main stacks of the bookstore and beyond. He develops an unrequited friendship with, even love for, Norman, the bookseller, and he persists in honing a dangerously introspective and sardonic reader's mind: "If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing quite like a vivid imagination for sapping a person's courage."

Anthropomorphism is certainly part of the game here. If it were the whole game, however, I would never have made it past page one or even the jacket copy. I am predisposed to dislike any novel told from an animal's perspective (sorry, Mr. Orwell), particularly when that animal is more perceptive and intelligent than I am. I don't recall liking such stories even when I was a child, and most of those animals were at least cuddly and cute.

But a rat?

It isn't the rat's perspective we generally solicit. Western authors have tended to offer perspective on rats more than from them. Think of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin":

Rats!
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Or GŁnter Grass in The Rat:

But does any dealer carry the gray-brown rats commonly known as sewer rats?
As a rule, pet shops stock only rodents which are not ill-famed, which are not proverbial, about which nothing bad has been written.

Or H.P. Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls," or the fevered imaginations of any number of other horror story writers. Rats are literary shorthand for terror and desecration, filth and death, deviousness and evil--"I smell a rat" and "rats deserting a sinking ship" and "You dirty rat!"

Look in your trusty Roget's II, and you'll find "rat" represented by such lovely notions as "betrayer, double-crosser, Judas, traitor, apostate, defector, deserter, recreant, renegade, runagate, tergiversator, turncoat, informant, informer, tattler, tattletale, tipster, fink, snitch, snitcher, squealer, stoolie, stool pigeon."

Author Sam Savage presents us with a mischievous challenge: love me, love my rat. And then he ups the ante by making this rat fascinating, but imperfect and not necessarily lovable. Lovable seems beside the point really. Firmin is one of us--a book person--and we don't think of ourselves as lovable, do we?

The novel begins with the authorial voice of the rodent Firmin explaining his theory about great first lines and citing examples by Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Ford Madox Ford. Firmin is precocious and self-aware: "In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully--yes, that's the word, manfully--as with openers."

He settles for this one: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

Pretty good... for a rat.

But what chance does a novel like Firmin have with a reader like me? As it happens, a very good chance, because the author has anticipated my every objection. Even Firmin himself agrees with me: "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."

Sam Savage knows that many of his readers will bring a lifetime's worth of accumulated prejudices and presumptions to their initial encounter with Firmin, and he plays with our shortsightedness deftly.

Consider the novel's epigraphs. One is from Philip Roth ("Had he kept a pain diary, the only entry would have been one word: Myself."). The other is from Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, an abbreviated version of the classic tale of the man who woke from a dream in which he was a butterfly to the uncertainty of whether he was now a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.

East and West. In Chinese astrology, the rat is viewed through a dramatically different lens. A person born in the Year of the Rat is considered fortunate, and rats represent good luck and prosperity. Words like charming, sociable, resourceful, and quick-witted are attached to the animal.

Firmin, then, might be seen as an Eastern rat doomed to be born into a traditional Western sewer rat family. More importantly, for anyone who has lived a life of books (and that would include most people reading this review), Firmin is us and we are Firmin. Reading is his grace, but he must also deal with all the errors and sins that flesh (even highly evolved rodent flesh) is heir to, including loneliness, sex, hunger, and an abiding sense of failure and dreams unfulfilled ("Like an idiot, I had aspirations.").

Firmin is eventually betrayed by Norman the bookseller in the deadly way that humans tend to betray rats. This treachery, combined with the fact that the bookstore and Scollay Square itself are slated for demolition, inspires Firmin to embark on a desperate new quest for food, shelter, and intellectual inspiration.

He teaches himself a crude form of sign language ("[I]n no time at all I had learned to say 'good-bye zipper.'") and soon finds, or is adopted by, the human friend he's always longed for in the person of the rumpled, bohemian experimental novelist Jerry Magoon. Firmin has learned earlier that Jerry is working on something of interest: "'I got a new novel going,' he said, 'about a rat. The furry kind. They're really going to hate this one.'"

I won't give away details of their relationship. It's complicated and, as fate will so often have it, imperfect. Still, you should discover for yourself the touching, if temporary, life that Jerry and Firmin patch together. Consider a scene where Jerry is selling copies of his earlier novels, including The Nesting (also with a rat for a main character, though in this case a giant, man-eating rat), on the street, and Firmin sits helpfully on the wagon in which the books are stacked. People stop to chat. "They were all very interested in me, and twice someone asked Jerry if I was tame, and he answered the same both times, 'No, man, he's not tame--he's civilized.'"

You have to love that.

Ultimately, the humans are not the point in this novel so much as a point of contact for Firmin with a seductive world from which he will be forever excluded despite all his reading and the evolution of his mind.

We meet Firmin and he is us. His life arc is that of a thinker and a dreamer, and we get that. Rat? Who cares? What does it matter? Sam Savage has given us a profound and profoundly entertaining reflection on what it means to live the examined life. "I always think everything is going to last forever, but nothing ever does. In fact nothing exists longer than an instant except the things we hold in memory."

I'll hold Firmin the rat and Firmin the novel in my memory for a long time. That may be the highest compliment I can pay to a book; it's certainly the highest compliment I've ever paid to a rat.

 

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