Don’t let the “cutesy” cover of Firmin fool you. Sam Savage’s first novel by is just about everything a serious reader, or a reader with a serious sense of humor, could want. Early on, Firmin tells us, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard. It begins, like all true stories, who knows where.” Fernando Krahn’s almost realistic black and white illustrations add to the whimsical intensity of our reading pleasure. Firmin is a rat, a runt of a rat, and the thirteenth of a litter born in the basement of Pembroke Books, a used bookstore in Boston. Mama rat has only twelve teats and Firmin, when he cannot latch on to a mommy tap, finds nourishment by ingesting pages torn from nearby books. It comes as no surprise that Firmin, nurtured and nestled as he was on the shredded texts of Melville and Cervantes, is a most intriguing creature.
When the time comes for mama and his siblings to leave their nest, Firmin does not abandon his birthplace. He is consumed by what he has consumed, and his life is lived in an imaginative world, quite outside the realm of rathood. He is in search of his destiny, and from all he has learned from the books eaten and read (yes, he reads, could we expect less from a creature who lives in a bookstore?), he fears that true Destiny is something never to be attained by a lowly rat, gifted or otherwise.
Make no mistake; this is not an allegory to be shared with youngsters – at least not until they reach puberty or an age when philosophical discussion can be accepted as occasionally enlightening, sometimes depressing, and often darkly humorous. Firmin’s lessons come from the stories he reads and loves: “I love the progression of beginning, middle, and end. I love the slow accumulation of meaning.” Savage has peopled Firmin’s story with Kafka, Ford Madox Ford, Stevenson, Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire, Joyce, Dickens, Ginger Rogers, and had it been longer than it 164 pages, it would have had a cast of thousands. We are a far cry from Disney and Stuart Little.
The setting is richly Boston. If we can recall Scollay Square just before its demolition or Boston’s other venerable haunts, we will feel right at home when Firmin ventures out from the bookstore into the mean streets of reality. The old Rialto Theater where movies run twenty-four hours a day is a safe, but seedy respite for Firmin. He often stays until after midnight when those films featuring his “lovelies” run: “The pull of these tremendous and fascinating creatures was so strong that I found myself sacrificing hours and even days at the bookstore just to behold them.” Savage proffers that the natural limitations of a rat’s existence, just like our own, can be met with courage when we chose a lively coexistence inside the storied world of art, in all its venues.
Savage has wisely allowed Firmin to remain a rat. He cannot speak, he cannot sing, or sign in lieu of speech, or recite poetry. He cannot laugh or cry beyond a range of squeaks. His tap dancing is laughable and his piano playing admirable, given that the miniature piano’s state of repair is sadly lacking. His one act of depravity is never repeated so that carnal knowledge is reduced to longing and fantasy. But Firmin’s mind, small though a rat’s brain may be, has been touched by greatness. Savage is on to something – the little rat does have a destiny. By the end of the tale, we may come to the conclusion that Firmin’s destiny is, in fact, our own. – Sunny Solomon