Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book 1: Rats

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
Pbk., Bloomsbury, New York, 2005

Consider the rat, and in particular the Norway rat*: our constant companions since they climbed out of their burrows in the steps in the middle ages. They are ubiquitous in our cities, and Sullivan is fond of repeating the exterminator's truism that no matter where you are there is probably a rat within a few feet of you. But except in the most extreme conditions, such as when a building is terribly infested, or a lone rat explorer rises up through the plumbing and surprises a resident by emerging from the toilet, they seem invisible.

Sullivan wanted to get to know rats, and for his fieldwork he selected a small alley, Ryders Alley, in lower Manhattan that was, from the rats' point of view, blessed with the garbage from an Irish bar, a Chinese restaurant, and a gourmet grocery store. Here Sullivan camps out like a naturalist with a night-vision scope, a pair of binoculars, a thermos of coffee, and his notebook. At first he doesn't see much, but wether by design or luck, Sullivan has chosen his alley well: as the rats get used to him, as as he gets used to looking for them, he sees hundreds. And as he also begins excavate the history of the alley, he realizes that this colony has been there since the American Revolution, when the site of the alley was first a field of grain, and then the site of tanners.

Sullivan also roots around the rat history of New York. He looks at the distribution of rats in poorer areas and how figures like Jesse Grey used rats to champion for the rights of poor tenants, and he looks at the history of exterminators, garbage-men, and public rat fighting. But this book is more than a rambling history of a particular object or commodity, such as salt or coffee, which has been very much in vogue in the last ten years or so: Sullivan's erudition and the quality of the personal narrative he weaves through the facts make this an appealing read.

*Which like the "French" or "Italian" disease owes nothing to Norway for its origin.


Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

I'm pretty sure I heard this guy interviewed on the radio, it might have even been DNTO. He seemed so enthusiastic and keen, in a totally unironic, straightforward way. He loved New York and he loved history and he had come to love rats. I've had a few good rat encounters in the city, saw the documentary by the guy who did Cane Toads, but always felt unsatisfied about what was really going on with those creatures. I'll be adding this to my list.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Lantzvillager said...

Nice read. I had seen that book and filed it away under the whole salt/cod/pencil genre of non-fiction on a single subject.

It's odd how we, as humans, have this almost instinctual revulsion towards rats. Every year since I can remember as a kid there were always a few rats trying to move into our house at the onset of winter. It has always been quite a battle between them and my father.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Shoe-shine boy said...

I fully echo Lantzvillager's comments, as far as the salt/cod nonfiction stuff goes. I'm into that and I think it's a good way to explore a single topic. We need more on ideas and less on nouns, but we'll get there. Just because it's popular (the genre) doesn't mean it's bad - except Davinci Code.

Your review was good and makes me want to read the book. Last year I read a book called Stiff that was about what happens to a body when the person inside dies. It's in this genre of nooun explanation.

10:19 AM  
Blogger beemused said...

I'm totally interested in reading this book too. Thanks for sharing!

9:05 PM  

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