Firmin, Sam Savage, Coffee House Press, 2006

Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

Gone are the days of Aesop and LaFontaine, when animals were harnessed to representing single human characteristics—the thrifty ant, the indulgent grasshopper. Now, all the fashionable animals act like people: multiple and contradictory, driven by human lusts and given to animal replies. One weekend in March, I heard papers delivered that argued that Donald Duck and his nephews are ducks when it suited their author Carl Barks and men when it didn't, but the mice in Art Spiegelman's Maus are men in everything but their faces. Sam Savage's novel Firmin is kin to Spiegelman's book, except when it's not. Told from the point-of-view of a hyper-literate rat (Firmin is birthed in the basement of a used bookstore and reads Finnegan's Wake from the pages his mother tore out from Joyce's novel to line her nest), Savage's book is less interested in rat doings than how playing the rat grants him access to the life of a "cosmopolitan lowlife."
      The novel and its narrator are of the reactive sort: when the bookstore shuts down, Firmin sees it as the end of an era of low-rent gentility. Firmin moves upstairs to live with Jerry, a sci-fi novelist and weirdo who is fine with Firmin, as a rat and a reader. Jerry sells his allegorical apocalypses from a red wagon to passers-by on the Boston Commons, and Savage/Firmin note the curious interactions between the straight world of the nine-to-five workers and Jerry's bohemian aesthetic. When Jerry dies, it stands for the end of an era in Boston's artistic community.
      Despite passing nods to the ratty life (Firmin is the runt of a litter of twelve siblings, and at one point rhapsodizes on the taste of rat poison; his attempts to sing Gershwin are frustrated by his ratty vocal chords), Savage is really interested in rueful, self-consciously human reflections: "One day at breakfast we read a long article in the Globe about Adolph Eichmann. It showed pictures of trainloads of starving people reaching their skinny arms out through the slats of cattle cars, and piles of emaciated corpses—they had rat faces—and Jerry said it made him ashamed to be human." There's a troubling doubling here, an authorial break of narrative sympathy; Savage needs beyond the range of Firmin's responses, so he speaks through Jerry. Savage chafes against the limits of his conceit before even this slim volume is finished, writing, "though I wore the disguise bravely, it always chafed, and sometimes I could not stop myself from gnawing at its edges." Though there is the sham-context of Firmin's relationship to his companion Jerry for this remark, it reveals just as much about how Savage sees his project, and chew at the edges he does by giving Firmin the ability to play a miniature piano, for example, and to hold forth on improvisation when it suits him.
      But what of it? So the book's conceit has limits. Savage means more than to tell what it's like to be a rat. Once underway, the novel valorizes a neighborhood, Boston's Scollay Square, and the eccentrics and also-rans who peopled it in the 1960s. This story has the potential for maudlin sentimentality (fight the power!) or a distinctly human wistfulness for something that once was and is now no more. But from the mouth of a rat, the argument is hard to parse: as in the sequence quoted above, Firmin's rattiness makes him hard to understand, and his solitary, one-of-a-kind nature makes it categorically impossible to empathize with him. This singular, selfish disease infests the historically real Scollay Square, with toxic effect: instead of birthing a possible, reclaimable past, Savage's novel makes the neighborhood and the lives it was possible to live there as anomalous as our narrator.
      Why do writers dress as pantomime horses or wear frog pajamas? Spiegelman's mice surprise us by peopling a holocaust memoir. Playing against our expectations of, on the one hand, the whimsy of cartoon animals, and on the other the harrowing experiences of concentration camp survivors, Spiegelman's split-depiction makes the material come alive. It's true Spiegelman naturalizes a political and historical struggle when he draws the Germans as cats an Jews as mice, and there is the risk, then, that Hitler's final solution becomes a biological imperative. But his characters' displays of instinctually human behavior make us realize how arbitrary are those visual markers of Aryan and Jew, both as Spiegelman cartoons them and how they mark and express themselves in our culture. Savage's novel lacks this ironic tension, this two-part symphony: you are left wondering, what do the people think? There must be someone who can sing this experience, but as we saw when Firmin attempts Gershwin, his voice is too pinched and small to carry the melody, let alone embellish it and to really make it sing.
      Carl Barks' ducks chased human dreams that were denied them because of their duckish nature. The tale is almost embarrassing to report, but from what I heard, from the waist down, Donald was "all duck." For him, duckdom is a disability, something he'd overcome if only he could. Of course, that only makes him more like us. The sad truth given us human animals to report: what we'd most like to give away is what makes us who we are. After all, what does it matter how you sing and how you dance when you walk and talk like a duck?