Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

A few months back my coworker John and I were sorting through a bunch of new books the collection development office sent to us at work. Most of it was what you expect: a bunch of mysteries, a few books on Iraq, a couple sex books. In the midst of all that John shoved a book into my hand, saying, "Hey, look at the crazy mug on this guy. This looks like your type of book."


Wizened face, tufts of wild white hair shooting every which way off the guy's head. This author was either 1. a homeless nut, 2. a philosophy professor, or 3. both. So yes, this definitely looked like my type of book. We're not suppose to grab new items when they first come in so patrons can get the first crack at them. I finally checked it out last week and blasted through this short and witty novel.

Sam Savage (who, it turns out, was a philosophy professor at some point) has taken two parts Notes from the Underground, one part Mouse and the Motorcycle and a dash of Mark Twain to give us the thoughtfully funny novel Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Firmin is a rat, but he's no ordinary rat. The runt of a litter born in the basement of a used bookstore in the Scollay Square section of Boston, he's self-described as the thirteenth child "fighting it out over twelve tits". To help him get by he starts eating the one thing that's around: books. At first it's just food for him, but though some miracle of digestive osmosis he starts understanding, appreciating and even loving the written word. Now that he understands books he feels guilty for destroying them and moves to simply reading them, and read he does. Firmin mentally digests everything from bad joke books to Don Quixote, using it as material to expand his mind.


Firmin looks towards the owner of the bookstore as sort of father figure, and he watches this unaware paternal man as he magically finds books for every customer who walks in the door. Later in the tale Firmin becomes a pet for pulp sci-fi author Jerry Magoon, who teaches him about jazz and even how to play music on a tiny toy piano. As the story develops Firmin continually regrets his status as a rat and aspires to greater things, at one point composing poetry and another teaching himself sign language in a futile effort to communicate with the human world.

The neighborhood of Scollay Square works as a nice backdrop and becomes more important to the story as the novel moves along. Set in the late 60's, the square is a run-down section of Boston made up of low end apartments, porn theatres and local businesses barely surviving. Boston starts a campaign to clean up the area and we see the historic buildings fall down one by one as the city gets ready to revitalize the district. The slow disintegration of Scollay Square works as a nice elegy for a lost neighborhood but also echoes the continually darker and existential thoughts of Firmin's little brain.

This is a definitely a book for book lovers, for those who read indisciminately genre to genre and have a love for obscure literary references and odd philosophical tangents. So really it's no surprise that I loved this. At 148 pages, it's a short novel and Savage's wonderfully offbeat humor delivers some complicated ideas in ways that are imaginative and fun.


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