Sam Savage : Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife

Do you ever come to a point in your reading where you feel that if you have to read another book about middle class marriages gone wrong or young women struggling against hideous adversity you will scream? Perhaps not, but as one for whom reading is a way of life sometimes I am overwhelmed by the horrid thought, ‘Am I tired of reading?’ And panic sets in. What would I do if I didn’t read? I have had my head in a book since I was four years old, and that Dear Readers, is a very long time ago. In this case my prescription for myself is to read something so bizarre and from such a different world there is no possibility of being bored.

So I delved into our huge piles of unread books purchased in second hand bookshops all over the country and came up with this: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. A book narrated by a literary rat and set in a rundown part of Boston, ear marked for development. I did not know Scollay Square, I did not know the Old Howard Theatre which had started life as a centre for a Millerite Adventist group who built it to be ready for the end of the world in the mid 1840’s. When it didn’t happen, they abandoned their church and it became an entertainment venue, eventually being closed by the police due to the risqué nature of its performances. And I didn’t have any knowledge about rats.

Our narrator, Firmin, is born in a bookshop at a time when the city fathers are getting closer to their project of demolishing Scollay Square and building the Government Centre which now exists there. Of course, he doesn’t know this, he is after all just a rat, one of thirteen born to his mother Flo who tore up pages of Finnegan’s Wake to make a nest in which to give birth. Although Firmin has a struggle to survive, his siblings being bigger and pushier than he is, he has one great advantage over them, he can read. Also, he has deduced from the shape of his head, he is a genius. The books he has read number among them,

Oliver Twist. Huckleberry Finn. The Great Gatsby. Dead Souls. Middlemarch. Alice in Wonderland. Fathers and Sons. The Grapes of Wrath. The Way of all Flesh. An American Tragedy. Peter Pan. The Red and the Black. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

He describes the development of his taste

My devourings at first, were crude, orgiastic, unfocused, piggy – a mouthful of Faulkner was a mouthful of Flaubert as far as I was concerned – though I soon began to notice subtle differences. I noticed first that each book had a different flavour – sweet, bitter, sour, bittersweet, rancid, salty, tart. I also noticed that each flavour…brought with it an array of images…things I knew nothing about from my very limited experiences in the so-called real world: skyscrapers, harbors, horses, cannibals, a flowering tree, an unmade bed, a drowned woman, a flying boy, a severed head…

His mother and siblings leave the bookshop for life in the outside world, but he is too addicted to the life of literature. He makes viewpoints about the bookshop, where he can observe Norman Shine, the bookshop owner from different angles. For a long time, he feels they are friends, having coffee together while reading the morning papers. He explores Scollay Square, sneaking out to the all-night cinema that plays banned films after midnight while hoboes and drunks snore away.  But not Firmin. The films thrill him. He falls in love with Ginger Rogers; he dreams that he is Fred Astaire. But as disaster comes closer to Scollay Square Firmin becomes aware of the true nature of his relationship with Norman and he has to flee.

Read this book for the humour and the compassion; for the insight into American life in the Sixties, to understand what it feels like to be highly intelligent but unable to communicate. We follow Firmin from his ‘bourgie’ period to a more bohemian way of life. We enjoy a new friendship with him and weep for the inevitable losses. We read the insights of a true philosopher.

…wide reading had left no doubt in my mind that in addition to crowds of sadists, fiends, psychopaths, and poisoners, the dominant species also sported exemplars of gentleness and compassion, and that most of the latter were women.

Sam Savage had a Ph.D from Yale and for a few years was a reluctant academic before becoming a bicycle mechanic and carpenter. Firmin, published in 2008 was his first and most popular novel, and was translated into thirteen languages.

If you are looking for something very different written by a superb writer, this is the book for you.


14 thoughts on “Sam Savage : Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife

  1. Born into Finnegan’s Wake — but not clear that he read it? Or was Finnegan’s Wake the only possible choice as a nest for such a genius? This sounds delightful —

    1. I think his mother chose Finnegan’s Wake because of its size. He did read it for he says, ‘soon thirteen of us were cruddled in its struins, to speak like itself,’chippy young cuppinjars cluttering round, clottering for their creams.’
      Wonderful book. I can’t imagine why we’ve never heard of it.

          1. My Boston experiences have been few, and memorable mostly for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the book (I’ve ordered it) will give me new perspectives! Also, we have a young friend who is moving there in the summer to go to school; she might like it as well. Sounds like a good way to get to know the city —

  2. Love your review of this – a book I recall being praised very highly on its release! It’s so refreshing when you have an experience like this – something that reminds you how inventive fiction can be while still having meaningful things to say.

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