December 2004

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

When he wanted to commune with nature, Henry David Thoreau journeyed alone to Walden Pond, took an axe with which to build his own dwelling, and lived there for two years. Robert Sullivan, acting on the same desire, went and stood in a city alley.

The alley in question is Edens Alley, a small and "filth-slicked" alley in New York City, and the nature Sullivan most closely observed was the lowly Rattus Norvegicus, also known as the bearer of black plague, the subject of many an urban legend, the bane of city dwellers' existences everywhere: the urban rat. The resulting book, Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, is anything but a dry discourse on the habits and habitats of history's least favorite rodent.

Sullivan's admission of why he chose rats is as straightforward and as seemingly effortless as most of his prose: "One answer is proximity. Rats live in the world precisely where man lives, which is, needless to say, where I live." From there he's off into a description and history of the city rat, followed closely by the play-by-play on how he chose his alley, and his rats, for observation. Chapters detailing the different aspects of a rat's existence (habitat, preferred food, extermination methods) are interspersed with chapters dedicated nominally to the history of rat existence, but which cover much broader topics in practice (illegal rat fights as gambling events, John DeLury and the New York City garbage strikes of the 1960s, plague). Does Sullivan digress wildly at times, and sometimes overreach in his desire to tie rat history to human history, and particularly New York City history? Yes, he does. Does it make for enjoyable and thought-provoking reading anyway? Without a doubt.

Although Sullivan approaches the subject with an admirable lightness of heart, freely admitting to the ick factor involved in watching rats in an alley, he covers his journalistic bases by speaking to numerous extermination and city sanitation experts, doing his background reading (when first heading out to his alley, he takes along a copy of the work of David E. Davis, the "founding father of modern rat studies"), and even attending a Chicago conference on rodent control to hear and try to meet Bobby Corrigan, who literally wrote the book on the subject, entitled, of course, Rodent Control. Even the endnotes, offering further personal asides and sources, are fun and quick reading. The book lacks an index and is just scholarly enough so that having one might have been nice, but hey, no author or publisher is perfect. The author's previous two books, Meadowlands and Whale Hunt, are also nonfiction treatises on people and their environments, and are much more interesting than that description makes them sound.

The allusions to Thoreau's work are there (Sullivan states, at one point, that "the bulk of rats live in quiet desperation"), but the book stands on its own as a testament to the beauty and relevance of nature all around us, as well as a polite suggestion that maybe we, scurrying about our days trying to keep fed and safe, are not so very different from our omnipresent animal neighbors.

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1582343853
242 pages