Sunday, May 21, 2006

BOOK: Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin – Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Were I to be doing the marketing for this book, I’d be tempted to throw down a phrase like “for anyone who believes in the power of literature.” I’d be lying (of course, I’d be marketing). This is not for anyone, this is not blushing book-love, but rather desperate and clinging. Firmin is a story not of literature’s power to exult, but to barely sustain in the face of inevitable decay. And, it recognizes that the power will always come up short.

Make no mistake, Firmin, our titular hero, is a book-lover. He is also a rat, the thirteenth child of a drunken twelve-nippled mother, born in the basement of a bookstore. It begins with chewing pages to supplement the few drops of wine-addled milk he is able to wrestle away from bullying siblings when he recognizes that he can understand the words. Firmin becomes the introverted reader who believes himself more rich than the world will ever be able to understand, who lives with the pain of recognizing he is, in their eyes, just a rat.

The strength of Firmin’s voice is the driving force of this book. Negotiating emotional honesty with self-deception, he calls himself a pervert and a cynic and is half right. His only moment of normal sexuality is arousal by his sister’s swaying haunches; later the same night he discovers what will become a lifelong obsession with his Lovelies, the women of the porn movies the local theater reverts to at midnight. So, pervert, maybe, but Firmin is no cycnic. He is the committed romantic that tries to adopt cynicism after each disappointment, yet will still and always imagine those he loves to be more than the wrecks we can clearly see them to be. It is his last defense of hope, and as a doomed strategy is most poignant late in the book, when he says of his only friend, “it occurred to me that if you didn’t know better, you could mistake Jerry for just another hooch hound on the long slide to nowhere.”

Firmin’s hope, dim and compromised as it is, grants him a very human voice. The mind that is convinced, when Firmin cites as his favorite opening line Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” that life always ends badly, is overthrown by the heart of a small frustrated writer that finds, in the moments of his life, beautiful and meaningful titles for the life story he knows he will never write.

The impact of the singularity of Firmin’s life extends to the writer, an indulgence I’m rarely willing to make. I would never consider including a book jacket bio in a review, were it not accompanying a photo of an old man and were it not this:

Sam Savage received his bachelor and doctoral degrees in Philosophy from Yale University where he taught briefly. He has also worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, commercial fisherman, and letterpress printer. This is his first novel.


Reviewed by Jim Jewell, 498 words



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