This isn’t exactly the book I hoped it would be, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
In the author’s (after)words: “Ratting, for me…is not just about rats; it is also about seeing another side of a given city.” And that’s exactly what he sets out to show his reader.
Rats is the story of the year Robert Sullivan spent watching, well, rats in an alley in New York City. It’s far more the story of New York City and her people; each chapter opens with a description of a night’s rat watching (or rat catching, as it were) and then segues to another story of the City entirely. Some of the connections feel more honest than others, but for the most part the segues were well enough done.
I learned the first person to take exterminator as a job title was in New York; I learned about the businesses that exterminate rats and the politicians who often do precious little about the rats invading their constituents’ homes. Sullivan addresses the difference between fancy rats and Norway wild rats. He spends a lot of time with people trying to eradicate rats and learns that most, if not all of them, respect the little beady-eyed buggers.
Implicit in his work is the idea that there is no such thing as a monster rat. In Rodent Control, the rat is not evil. The rat is a rat. (p. 126)
When I picked this book up I hoped it would be more field guide and rat history, rather than partial field guide and human history with the occasional inclusion of rats.
And yes, Sullivan does address the bubonic plague (which, it turns out, isn’t the rats’ fault at all).
There were a few moments that made me go “ew”, and more where I laughed, either at or with Sullivan as he intended:
The goal would be twofold: (1) get the rat, and (2) stay the hell away from the rat. […] And what was I thinking again, trying to catch a rat? Where was my self-respect, my instinct for self-preservation? (pp 131-132)
(I was, however, amused: in the final chapter he discusses the arrival of Rattus Norvegicus as it probably happened during the Revolutionary War. Much to my amusement, Alexander Hamilton appeared, in his role as newspaperman rather than rabble-rousing founding father:
The young Alexander Hamilton, the next generation of revolutionary, condemned the raid as a defamation of the press. (p 210)
and Hercules Mulligan was deemed worthy of an end note.)
In the Afterword, Sullivan discusses how one is perceived after writing a book about staking out rats, and comes up with what I think is my favorite euphemism for death yet when discussing a bookstore
where a rat had been, shall we say, discount-tabled. (p. 221)
Interesting, as a different way to look at the history of a city and her people by the animals with whom we live side-to-side whether we like it or not. A little dry at times; I could usually only manage a chapter or maybe two in a sitting. But worth reading, for all of that, if you’re interested in rats, people, or often-ignored or forgotten history.