Saturday, 29 January 2011

Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin is a lover of words, literature and film, a champion of alternative culture, a creature capable of great love and courage.  He's also a rat.  Sam Savage's book lets Firmin tell his own story, of how his early days nesting in the shredded pages of Finnegans Wake led to his literal consumption of books (Jane Eyre tastes of lettuce, apparently) and eventually to a voracious reading habit that set him apart from other rats.  Firmin lives in Pembroke Books, a secondhand bookshop run by Norman Shine in a shabby part of Boston, its neighbours a tattoo parlour and a fleapit cinema; he will witness the gradual erosion of this area by the forces of gentrification, and the loss of a bohemian way of life.  Firmin nourishes his unratlike qualities, appalled by his true nature and appearance, and yearns for a closer connection with the humans he sees coming in and out of the bookshop.  Firmin's fantasy self is like Fred Astaire, a natty, elegant, witty person. Ironically, he will become closest to Jerry Magoon, an ageing beatnik author, only because of his real self: Jerry once wrote a science fiction novel in which rats inherit the earth.

I don't think Firmin was written with young adults in mind but it strikes me that Firmin's accounts of his self-loathing, his self-delusion and his isolation would suit this audience very well.  You could also use the book as a reading list;  Firmin's literary enthusiasms will take you through the classics of modernism.  But the book stands on its own merits: funny, surprising and sad, it also includes a perfect description of the delights of browsing in a secondhand bookshop:

 Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere.  After I understood people better, I realised that this incredible disorder was one of the things people loved about Pembroke Books.  They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram.  They hung around.  They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining.  I was surprised they didn't come in with shovels.  They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it.  In that way shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page - the next shelf, stack or box - and that was part of the pleasure of it.

Indeed it is.  There is an interview with Sam Savage here, for those who'd like to know more about this first-time novelist.

No comments:

Post a Comment