The autobiography of a rat, born in a bookstore, that learns to read.
In a decrepit Boston neighborhood circa 1960, drunken soldiers spy Flo, a mama rat in search of a nest, and give chase. Detouring down a drain, Flo lands in the basement of Pembroke Books: New, Used, Rare, where she shreds the nearest volume, which happens to be Finnegans Wake, into a comfy pile, and gives birth to 13. Firmin, the runt always nudged off one of Flo’s 12 teats by a bigger sibling, winds up eating Joyce’s words. Soon he discovers he can read. Initially, Firmin admits, a mouthful of Faulkner is a mouthful of Flaubert, but as his taste (and his scavenging skill) improves, he begins to read more than he snacks so that when his siblings leave for more promising digs, Firmin remains, believing his love of humanity is a direct result of his early diet of literature. The object of Firmin’s affection is the bookstore proprietor, Norman Shine, whom Firmin watches over from myriad observation points in the store. Firmin marvels at Norman’s knowledge of books: There is no question too arcane or pedestrian for Shine. When he receives news that his establishment—in fact, the whole of Scollay Square—is to be demolished as part of an urban renewal project, Firmin grieves with his friend. But Norman, who eventually catches sight of Firmin, does not reciprocate, a reality Firmin registers on discovering a box of Rat Out in Firmin’s favorite hideaway. Dejected, Firmin makes a mad daylight dash into the street, where he is attacked. A sci-fi writer who lives above the bookstore rescues Firmin. (His one published book chronicles a Rat Empire that overtakes Earth.) Simpatico, the two read and play Cole Porter on a toy piano as the wrecking ball swings.
An amusing diversion for bibliophiles and Willard fans; in Savage’s debut, a rat’s life may be brutish and short, but not necessarily without style.