Friday, June 19, 2009

You've GOT to Read This I: Firmin by Sam Savage

(Note that the title is labeled "I." I've decided to start another ongoing mini-series on this blog for all those of you whose TBR lists and piles are looking a little sickly and emaciated these days. It's for books that I've found out about via word of mouth and that -- determined solely by me -- need further spreading via word of mouth -- or blog post, as the case may be.)

You've got to read:
Savage, Sam. Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006.

One of the great things about working in the publishing industry (the library world, too) is that you are guaranteed to work side-by-side with colleagues who love to read as much as you do. If you are really lucky (as I was), you come into work in the morning to find books these colleagues have left on your chair with yellow stickies that say things like, "This is the one I mentioned at lunch yesterday," or "This seems like the sort of thing you'd like," or with no sticky at all, the assumption being you will know exactly who is proffering the gift. Then, if you are extremely fortunate, these colleagues become friends, people with whom you stay in touch even when you are no longer working together, and you continue to share book titles with each other. That's how I found out about this little gem of a book, from my former colleague and friend Bob, whose take on it you can find here. This is what he had to say about it in an email to me:

You would love it. It’s about “Firmin, a debonair soul trapped in a rat’s body” who lives in the basement of a bookstore in Boston. It’s a wonderful book about books and their impact on the life of a rat and his attempt to reach out to humans. It’s metaphorically meaningful and a fast read and at times a SOL (smile out loud). Recommend it highly if you haven’t already read it!
He was absolutely right. I loved this little book from the moment I picked it up at the library (so much so, that I have to buy my own copy of it now. Does anyone else do that: check a book out of the library, read it, and then decide to own it?). The cover of the version I read is fabulous, made to resemble an old book from a used bookstore whose dust jacket is worn and ripping, with a terrific illustration of an angst-ridden rat scratching his head. What a beautiful design, inside and out, one that has drawn me to the publisher.

I'd never heard of Coffee House Press, but I am impressed. Apparently, they are a nonprofit literary house, one that produces "...books that present the dreams and ambitions of people who have been underrepresented in published literature, books that shape our national consciousness while strengthening a larger sense of community." How can an aspiring writer not feel an affinity for such a place? I plan to read more of their books.

Anyway, back to the book (since this isn't called, "You've GOT to Get to Know This Publisher, although that's not such a bad idea for a mini-series, either, is it?). If this book had not been recommended to me by someone whose recommendations I highly trust, I never would have read it. Although I love animals and have been known to appreciate some allegorical works as an adult, even as a child, I was pretty picky about the books I read that featured animals as main characters -- just way too many tricky questions to pull it off successfully, as far as I was concerned. They pretty much had to exist in nonexistent realms, where it was okay for them to do things like talk or accomplish tasks that require opposable thumbs, or they had to exist without humans. Well, this little novella pulls it off swimmingly, humans and real world, and all.

The book may have a picture of a rat on the cover, but don't let it fool you. It isn't about a rat at all (except in the way all we humans are rats), but rather, it's about a reader, a reader who also had a fondness for the piano and the likes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin (such good taste!). Oh, and he liked to watch old movies, too. So why have you got to read this book, which sounds so implausible, and besides, you've got Edgar Sawtelle and Jeffrey Lent and Nick Hornby piled up for this summer, not to mention books for book discussion groups? Because it is all about you, the book addict (I dare you to read it and not to be able to recognize yourself at least somewhere, if not everywhere), and the writing is beautiful, and you will smile, and you might find a tear or two in your eye (or at least a lump in your throat) when you reach the inevitable but oh-so-well portrayed heartbreaking ending (and even a time or two before it ends).

In case you're still not convinced, let me share with you a few places where I recognized myself:

If there is one thing a literary education is good for it is to fill you with a sense of doom. There is nothing quite like a vivid imagination for sapping a person's courage. I read the diary of Anne Frank. I became Anne Frank. As for the others, they could feel plenty of terror, cringe in corners, sweat with fear, but as soon as the danger had passed it was as if it had never happened, and they trotted cheerfully on. Cheerfully on through life till they were flattened or poisoned or had their necks cracked by an iron bar. As for me, I have outlived them all and in exchange I have died a thousand deaths. I have moved through life trailing a glistening film of fear like a snail. When I actually die it will be an anticlimax. (p. 33)

Oh, me too, me too. I've been through so many divorces, lost so many spouses and children to disease or psychological dysfunction, and yes, died all those deaths with so many characters. Of course, sometimes, it was the characters themselves who led me there by trotting cheerfully on even while I was screaming at them, "No! No! Don't do that!" How can anyone not love that final line, "When I actually die it will be an anticlimax?"

You laugh. You are right to laugh. I was once -- despite my unpleasant mien -- a hopeless romantic, that most ridiculous of creatures. And a humanist, too, equally
hopeless. (p. 37)
That one doesn't even need explaining, does it? Did I ever start life as a hopeless romantic! Then I read and read and read and read. Now I cling to my romanticism with a tenacity that would probably thrill the Arthurians, but it's pretty hopeless. The cynicism has crept in, fed on a huge diet of hopeless humanism.

I loved Jerry, but I feared that what he loved in return was not me but a figment of his imagination. I knew all about being in love with figments. And in my heart I always knew, though I liked to pretend otherwise, that during our evenings together, when he would drink and talk, he was really just talking to himself. (p. 117)

That could be a lonely spouse or lover pondering the nature of his or her relationship (it isn't, but it could be). It could be a happy spouse or lover, pondering the need for imagination in order to carry on this impossible set of feelings we call "love," fearing that a partner might not be able to keep on doing so once the "real me" is discovered (it isn't, but it could be). What it is is a quote from a rat that leads into an incredibly poignant section in the book about the masks we wear as well as those forced upon us by others. When we don our own masks, we find freedom. When masks are forced upon us, we find ourselves imprisoned. Ever thought of that? I hadn't. Not so eloquently as this little rat does, anyway.

My brain was like a gigantic warehouse -- you could get lost in it, lose track of time peeking into boxes and cases, wandering knee-deep in dust, and not find your way out for days. (p. 133)
Wait a minute. Firmin wasn't born in that bookstore after all. He was born somewhere in a corner of my head and has found his way to the tunnels that lead to my brain, right? You've all seen me describe my brain in this way, haven't you?

There you have it, all the reasons to race out and buy this book now (or at least visit your local library to pick up a copy, so you can then decide to race out and buy it). As for me? It's too bad I no longer live in New York. I think I'd be far more tolerant next time I saw a feisty little rat burrowing around in a city trashcan. Maybe he's not looking for food. Maybe he's reading that discarded issue of The New York Times. Or maybe it's not too bad. Maybe it's a good thing, because my heart won't crack a little as I see him trot cheerfully on across the street to disappear into the bushes somewhere in Riverside Park, while I scream "No! No! Don't do that!"


Sandra said...

This was outside my comfort zone but the literary context could not be resisted. I loved this story. You are right to promote it.

sarawithnoh said...

I love, love, love the part about having trouble with books that feature animals as main characters. I get very involved when I read and I need to be able to create the right picture in my mind. We read a book in our book club and they kept talking about driving around in buckboards so I was obsessed with buckboards...what do they look like, do they have seatbelts, do people get splinters ever, is there a back seat? All these questions and there weren't even animals without oppposable thumbs!

Emily Barton said...

Sandra, so glad to hear someone else was wary but drawn to it due to the literary context and ended up loving it as well.

Sara, what the hell is a buckboard? I would be similarly obsessed if it kept popping up in something I was reading. (Note to self: make sure when I am writing that I explain such things in enough detail for those who are not familiar with them.)

Bob said...

Emily, I enjoyed reading your review of the book as much as reading the book itself, insightful and beautifully written with such energy. Glad I found the book first as your review would have left me little to add. You’re a true blue bibliophile. Yours, Bob

Emily Barton said...

Bob, I'm glad you found the book first, too, or I never would have known about it. Thanks for the compliments (I'm blushing).

litlove said...

Alas, my TBR pile is practically musclebound... but this does sound good and I'm very tempted. I'm looking forward to more in this series of posts - Barnes and Nobel occasionally send me discount vouchers and I'd love some recommendations for US books I could buy with them.

musingsfromthesofa said...

Emily, thank you! I saw this in Posman's one night, didn't buy it, entirely forgot the title, author and publisher and had only a vague memory that it was sort of about a rat. Now I can put it firmly back on my weak, spindly TBR list.

sarawithnoh said...

I love Google! This definition still does not answer all of my questions though...

Dorothy W. said...

My TBR pile isn't exactly emaciated, but I will have to keep an eye out for this one! I remember hearing good things about it a while ago, but then it fell away from view a bit, and now I've come across it again in your post ... you really do make it sound great.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, I think I know what that musclebound TBR pile looks like, but next time you get a voucher, I would definitely look for this one.

MFS, so glad to have helped, as I seriously doubt you are the sort of person who would walk into a store and say to the clerk, "I'm looking for that book about a rat. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

Thanks, Sara!

Dorr, it is great, and a good one to put on the TBR pile, because it won't cause it to topple over, and it can be read quickly, even by those of us who are slow readers.