In his first novel, Madison-based author Sam Savage explores the basic concepts of humanity — with a rat, no less. “Firmin,” though generally dark in tone, is all at once a ponderous story of whimsy, hope, adventure and despair that tugs at the heartstrings of animal lovers, philosophers, humanists and the literary elite alike.

A novel wide in its scope of imagination, “Firmin” takes the reader on a (brief) journey into the heart of Boston’s real-life but now demolished Scollay Square and down into the basement of the fictional Pembroke Books. It is here where Firmin the rat, the novel’s protagonist, is born and raised in the pages of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”

But it is also in this bookstore where Firmin, the youngest of 13 rat babies, begins to satisfy both a physical and mental appetite for literature and knowledge. After eating a great many of the books (“Jane Eyre,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Huckleberry Finn,” to name a few) housed in the store, the protagonist’s inquisitive nature bests him, and he begins reading these very novels with a voracious appetite.

Soon enough, his ambitions to seemingly devour the entire bookstore’s worth of literature lead him to explore and experience his very limited surroundings all the while City Council members make plans to destruct Scollay Square. Oblivious, he discovers his deep appreciation for bookstore owner, Norman, the “first human being F. ever loved.” He lusts for Ginger Rogers. He even tries his hand at both sign language and piano playing.

But Firmin is ultimately the victim of his own naivety and ambitions; truly, he is a tragic character in the most heartbreaking sense. Throughout the novel, Firmin’s struggle to become and behave on the most basic of levels — to speak, associate and even fornicate with others — as a human being are his primary mission. And while he moderately achieves this in his literary examinations and explorations of the outside world, he is unable to grasp two of humanity’s most basic emotions — love and sadness.

Firmin never truly loves Norman, nor does he love Ginger Rogers, nor any of the “Lovelies” he sees in the skin flicks screened at the movie theater near Pembroke Books. In these figures, instead, he seeks to satisfy his inner longings; he idolizes the bookstore owner as a son does a father — something Firmin has lacked his entire life — while Rogers, and the other Lovelies are mere objects of his carnal desire. Conversely, the rodent cannot mourn, not even shed a tear, after experiencing two monumental personal tragedies. Truly, his greatest “despair” is a melodramatic fit, pitched upon realizing his “love” for Rogers is not only unrequited, it is “unrequitable.” Ultimately, his failure to exhibit these emotions results in his failure to fulfill his unstated ambition.

Still, the rodent’s mission and his very nature force readers to wonder whether these two emotions are necessary elements of humanity; truly, it is easy to forget at times Firmin is indeed a rat. But the philosophy behind this idea is one that makes this book so thoroughly intriguing, and Savage packages this nicely. Although the topic is generally cumbersome, the whimsy surrounding Firmin’s story lightens the load.

Savage’s heavily descriptive writing also draws readers in and keeps them encapsulated inside the thoughts of the wildly curious protagonist as he explores the wonders around him. Reflecting upon consuming these books, Firmin states, “I also noticed that each flavor — and, as time passed and my senses grew more acute, the flavor of each page, each sentence, and finally each word — brought with it an array of images, representations in the mind of things I knew nothing about.” Vivid passages such as this one do not just offer glimpses of the rodent’s thoughts; they offer full views of his every dream, hope and desire.

Firmin warns at the beginning of the book that “this is the saddest story I have ever heard.” And truly, Sam Savage’s “Firmin,” in all its 163-page glory, is one heart-wrenching read, but it is also one novel that cannot and must not be passed by.

Sam Savage’s “Firmin” can be purchased at Barnes and Noble stores and online at www.amazon.com .

4 1/2 stars out of 5.