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Issue #127 - March 2006

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A Life in Books

By Cheryl Morgan

The scene is Boston in the 1960ís. Scollay Square is by no means the most pleasant part of the city, but it does have small havens. Flo is on the run from a group of sailors who are even more drunk than she is. She finds sanctuary in the basement of a bookstore, which is just as well because she is heavily pregnant and her time is near. She needs nesting material, but thankfully there are lots of books around. She picks a big one, rips out some pages, and settles down in them.

A few hours later it is all over. A very healthy litter: thirteen in all, and very demanding. Thankfully Floís bloodstream is full of alcohol that sheís lapped up from the streets and bars, so they are soon asleep. Flo sleeps too.

For the runt of litter, life is not so easy. Mama only has twelve nipples, and that means that Firmin is regularly booted out of the feeding queue. There isnít much to eat in a bookstore, except paper, and Firmin finds it all around him. In desperation he eats some of the nest, but his unorthodox diet has a strange effect on him. After a while he finds that he can understand the mysterious black marks on the nest material. He has been eating a book. It is called Finneganís Wake, written by a human called Joyce, and it is rather interesting. What is more, the store appears to be full of more of these book things. Which would be wonderful, if it wasnít for the fact that Firmin is a rat.

The rest of my family were blessed in a way. Thanks to their dwarfish imaginations and short memories they did not ask for a lot, mostly just food and fornication, and they got enough of both to take them through life while it lasted. But that was not the life for me. Like an idiot, I had aspirations.

The book under review, then, is a memoir of a distinctly erudite individual who loves books and has read more of them than most humans, but who is hampered by the fact that he canít talk and is regarded as vermin by the only people he might talk to. Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, is alternately comic and tragic, but always infused with a love of books, and of the funny, hairless creatures who create and love them.

The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature, including mouse literature. I despise good-natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones.

Eventually, however, Firmin finds a soul mate. Jerry Magoon is a writer of science fiction. Well, letís face it, heís a writer of bad pulp SF, some of which just happens to feature Earth being invaded by intelligent giant rats. What Firmin would have made of Douglas Adamsí white mice we will never know. Rats, even super-intelligent rats, do not live that long. But I did find myself thinking that it was rather a shame that Jerry never moved to San Francisco as he planned. I suspect that he, Firmin, and Phil would have got on very well together. Phil and Jerry would have hit it off straight away, having similar views about politics and booze, and Phil might even have been smart enough to figure out Firminís attempts to communicate. Then where would the world have been?

But, as it is, the lives of both rats and drunken pulp writers are short and sad, and therefore so is this book. But not, as I intimated before, without being both funny and deeply fond of books as well. If you are looking for something to while a way a few hours, and you happen to love books (all books) yourself, you will enjoy Firmin.

Firmin - Sam Savage - Coffee House Press - mass-market paperback

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Firmin - Sam Savage - Coffee House Press

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee