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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
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READING HERODOTUS:
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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Savage, Sam: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife

  Amazon  

4.5 stars

Firmin, the unusually literate rat who gives Sam Savage's little gem of a book its title, was born during the Kennedy administration in the cellar of a bookstore. Pembroke Books, the beloved charge of its Friar Tuckish owner Norman, sat near an x-rated theater in the squalor of Boston's blighted Scollay Square. The circumstances of Firmin's birth, both geographic and familial, largely defined his life.

Born the 13th of 13 children to a 12-teated, alcoholic mother, Firmin was frequently compelled by virtue of his relatively diminutive size and strength to assuage his hunger by gnawing on books--a pathetic situation which, however, resulted in the singular fact and blessing of his life, his "lexical hypertrophy," heightened mental acuity coupled with an uncanny ability to read at super-human, let alone super-rodent speeds.

"I am convinced that these masticated pages furnished the nutritional foundation for--and perhaps even directly caused--what I with modesty shall call my unusual mental development."

At the same time, Firmin's early introduction to the "velvet-skinned beings" who featured in the local theater's midnight showings confused his sexuality and cemented his perverse identification with the humans whose literature he was devouring in both senses. Firmin being an anthropomorphized rat, you'll be tempted to think that Savage's novel is just another cute contribution to "rat literature"--a genre, by the way, which Firmin himself despises:

"I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones."

Don't be fooled. Firmin is caustic and cynical, his story imbued with a sense of tragedy. Early on, for example, we learn that Norman--the first human whom Firmin ever loved--has somehow failed him. In the last quarter of the book the mood grows even more somber. Savage exhibits an uncanny ability to channel the inner life of our tragic narrator: Firmin is a very believable character, a creature of elevated sensibilities mired in the ugly realities of a rat's world. Savage's writing is exquisite, particularly in the book's first half. Here, for example, he describes Firmin's first sighting of Norman's desk:

"I still did not know Norman--for some time yet he was to sit in my mind simply as the Owner of the Desk--but the clutter on the desk, the upright steel spike stacked to its tip with a ragged foliage of impaled receipts, the shiny arms of the chair, and of course the red cushion itself with its buttocks-shaped depression in the center, possessed an aura of seriousness and dignity that, considering my background, I found perfectly irresistible."

Savage's Firmin is a connoisseur of literature, having ingested more of it than you or I ever will. Firmin found books as a whole to be quite tasty: "My friend," he once told a man in a bar, "given the chasm that separates all your experiences from all of mine, I can bring you no closer to that singular savor than by saying that books, in an average sort of way, taste the way coffee smells." But it turns out, as Firmin discovered, that how good a book tastes is directly related to its literary quality: Jane Eyre is better than Emily Post is better than Stuart Little. That being so, you might want to give your copy of Firmin a nibble: it's a very tasty read. Review summary: Firmin, the literate rat who gives Sam Savage's book its title, was born in the cellar of a bookstore in Boston's blighted Scollay Square. Born the 13th of 13 children to a 12-teated, alcoholic mother, Firmin was often compelled to assuage his hunger by gnawing on books--a pathetic situation which resulted in the singular fact of Firmin's life, his ability to read. Firmin is not a rodent in the Stuart Little mold: he is caustic and cynical, his story imbued with a sense of tragedy. Savage exhibits an uncanny ability to channel Firmin's inner life: he emerges a very believable character, a creature of elevated sensibilities mired in the ugly realities of a rat's world. Savage's writing, moreover, is exquisite. If it is true, as Firmin explains, that a book's literary quality is directly related to its taste, then you might want to give your copy of Firmin a nibble.

Comments

1.

Just started reading this, and I love it. I'm proud of my novel Shelf Monkey (out on April 17, and I make the comparison because of similar themes), but Savage is blowing me away. I wish I wrote this.

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