My agent, Pamela, recommended a book to me awhile back: Firmin, by Sam Savage. The short version is, it’s about a rat who learns to read and lives first in a bookshop, then with a writer.
Pamela, who knows me pretty well, said she thought I’d enjoy the “post-modern ironic opening scene” of a mother rat ripping up an encyclopedia to make a word-lined nest for her infants.
Firmin, the rat hero of this tale, grows up literate and confused; self-aware but not all that savvy, he finds out the hard way that humans assume he’s either vermin, or a cute fuzzy thing with pink toes and big eyes. (In a moment of pure speculation, I am assuming that’s how Monsieur Savage came up with his name: adorable fur, nasty critter, Fir-min.)
But deep down Firmin longs to be accepted, to be loved by the bookshop owner in whose place he squats, then appreciated as an intellectual equal by his writer, who gives him a home as his pet. The scene where Jerry (the writer) takes Firmin to see Old Yeller–or was it The Yearling?–is hysterical, but like all good humor it stems from pain, because Firmin’s been watching porn at that theatre all his life. Yet he mugs for Jerry, pretending to be frightened of the animals onscreen in a way that makes his “owner” laugh, while internally writing a scathing review of the film’s oversentimentality and other shortcomings.
This is on the one hand a complicated book, and on the other a simple one, depending on which layer one pays more attention to at any given moment. A neighborhood is being destroyed, its small shops giving way to urban planning (ironically enough, to get rid of the “vermin” among other civic-spun reasons). The bookseller who–in frustration at losing his shop– gives away his books one step ahead of the bulldozers is based on someone Sam Savage actually knew.
I don’t know that I can write–that I have written here–a review of Firmin; what I can tell you is that I loved it, and enjoyed it (two different things) and learned from it.
And I can tell you that one of the women who now works at Malaprop’s (the grandmother of Southern independent bookstores) was an intern at the publishing house where Firmin came as a submission, and that her desk was one wall over from the acquisitions editor who read it. She remembers hearing “laughing and crying and ‘Oh s^^^’s coming through the wall, as the editor read it.”
I can see why.