Thursday, June 11, 2009


Most books I read come to me because of my previous knowledge of the author’s work or the recommendation of a review or by someone I respect. And such is the case with Firmin but the way it came to me was through a chance chain of events befitting the role of chance in the book itself, a serendipitous journey of the book into my hands. My son, Jonathan, had recently been in Sardinia, quietly enjoying a cappuccino in a local cafĂ© and a woman was nearby, tearfully finishing Firmin and they struck up a conversation. “Here,” she said, "take the book and read it; you’ll love it,” offering him her worn paperback copy of a UK edition with a sticker on it, “Choose from any 3 for 2 at Waterstone’s.” At first Jonathan politely demurred thinking that it was probably some maudlin potboiler, but she was insistent and so he accepted. He read it on the plane when he left and suggested I read it when he last visited, so via happenstance the copy wound up with me.

Now, if I could imagine a Venn diagram of my 30-something son and my literary taste, there would be a majority overlap of books we both care deeply about, but the non-shaded area of books we do not mutually enjoy is meaningful enough to raise doubts regarding a book about “a well-read Rat” with a debonair soul who lives in the basement bookstore on Boston’s Scollay Square in the 1960’s. But Jonathan said: “trust me on this one” and as it is a book about books as well, I read it and I’m glad I did. It is quite a find under the proverbial radar.

Interestingly the subtitle of Sam Savage’s work has morphed from “Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife” in the UK edition to “A Tale of Exile, Unrequited Love, and the Redemptive Power of Literature” in the American edition. Both are accurate but I suppose the latter makes it more marketable. Below there is the review of the book from Publisher’s Weekly. There is also a brief, amusing You Tube promotion of the book that warrants attention.

Like most novels narrated by a rat :-), it is a metaphor of life we human rats endure and bring upon ourselves, with themes of Hardy and Dickens running beneath the surface of lovable Firmin’s narrative. It is a highly imaginative work, one you are doomed to compulsively read to the end in one sitting and at times a SOL (smile out loud).

And, for me, what is there not to love about a rat who is a voracious reader and plays the piano as well? But, Firmin’s narration touches so many truths for me: “A rat’s life is short and painful, painful but quickly over, and yet it feels long while it lasts….I always think everything is going to last forever, but nothing ever does. In fact nothing exists longer than an instant except the things that we hold in memory. I always try to hold on to everything – I would rather die than forget….One of the things I have observed is how extremes coalesce. Great love becomes great hatred, quiet peace turns into noisy war, vast boredom breeds huge excitement. Great intimacy spawns huge estrangement.”

And those are but a few.

From Publishers Weekly
Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle. Soon left to fend for himself, Firmin finds that books are his only friends, and he becomes a hopeless romantic, devouring Great Books—sometimes literally. Aware from his frightful reflection that he is no Fred Astaire (his hero), he watches nebbishy bookstore owner Norman Shine from afar and imagines his love is returned until Norman tries to poison him. Thereafter he becomes the pet of a solitary sci-fi writer, Jerry Magoon, a smart slob and drinker who teaches Firmin about jazz, moviegoing and the writer's life. Alas, their world is threatened by extinction with the renovation of Scollay Square, which forces the closing of the bookstore and Firmin's beloved Rialto Theater. With this alternately whimsical and earnest paean to the joys of literature, Savage embodies writerly self-doubts and yearning in a precocious rat: "I have had a hard time facing up to the blank stupidity of an ordinary, unstoried life." (Apr.)
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