Firmin by Sam Savage, illustrated by Michael Mikolowski, paperback, 162 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $14.95
Firmin, the title character of Sam Savage's novel, is a real rat. I mean a real rat — the sort with four legs, a long tail and presumably a pinkish nose (the color isn't certain since the illustrations are in black and white). What sets Firmin apart from others of his clan is that Firmin is a reader. He devours books — both figuratively and literally.
Born in the basement of a book shop in Boston's Scollay Square in the 1960s, Firmin (the runt of the litter) discovers his passion early on when he is nourished not by his mother's milk (too many siblings jostling about ahead of him), but by the books he both gnaws on and reads. Beginning with a diet of Moby Dick and Don Quixote, Firmin naturally worries about finding his Destiny. A quick look in the mirror tells him that he'll never be as dapper and debonair as his hero Fred Astaire, and he'll never search for an elusive white whale or tilt at windmills. But surely, he thinks, there's something more to life than scrounging for food in a dilapidated movie theater:
Could it be that I, despite my unlikely appearance, have a Destiny? And by that I meant the sort of thing people have in stories, where the events of a life, no matter how they churn and swirl, are swirled and churned in the end into a kind of pattern … Lives in stories have direction and meaning. Even stupid and meaningless lives, like Lenny's in Of Mice and Men, acquire through their place in a story at least the dignity and meaning of being Stupid Meaningless Lives, the consolation of being exemplars of something. In real life you do not get even that. ...
This darkly comic homage to the power of imagination, the lure of books and the desire to live a life that means something speaks to all of us. And you'll never think about rats the same way.