Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
On the first page of this fascinating study, New York writer Robert Sullivan tackles the question many readers may wonder: Why did he choose to write a book about rats? His explanation illustrates his dispassionate, yet conversational and often humorous tone: “One answer is proximity. Rats live in the world precisely where man lives, which is, needless to say, where I live.” Acknowledging that many people find rats frightening and disgusting, Sullivan asserts, and goes on to demonstrate, that the history of rats is bound up with that of humankind, whose garbage they eat. Sullivan's research into New York City brings to life many historical figures, from American naturalist John James Audubon, whose painting of rats inspired this book, to the Civil Rights movement agitator Jesse Gray, who challenged authorities to eradicate rodent infestation in Harlem tenements, to Isaac Sears, who mobilized a mob of American colonialists against British soldiers just before the Revolutionary War began.
With a scientist's accuracy and with pleasing informality, Sullivan reports his methods: “All I did was stand in an alley—a filth-slicked little alley that is about as old as the city and secret the way alleys are secret and yet just a block or two from Wall Street, from Broadway, and from what used to be the World Trade Center.” He describes his observations of the nightlife, mentioning passersby, local loiterers without obvious residences or occupations, and taverngoers who step outside the taverns for cigarettes and are sometimes surprised to see a man standing in the dark alley with night-vision gear. “To know the rat is to know its habitat, and to know the habitat of the rat is to know the city.” After describing this part of the city, he describes the rats, occasionally with aversion but always with interest and delightful characterization: “Rats command a perverse celebrity status—nature's mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers.”
Sullivan devotes his second chapter to describing the rat that lives in Manhattan, Rattus norvegicus, also called the Norway or brown rat. The animal is a marvel of evolution, with its excellent sense of smell and taste, its incisors which grow five inches per year, its steel-strong teeth, its ability to mate as often as twenty times a day, and its phenomenal birthrate: “A single mating pair can produce up to 15,000 offspring a year.” (This number seems sensationalistic, unless he means to include the offspring of offspring.)
Sullivan chronicles how rats made their way to America from Asia and how they can invade buildings, basements, and subway stations with their powers of gnawing and digging. He also evokes sympathy for these mammals by detailing the many ways in which they can be killed, from automobiles and hawks to determined exterminators armed with traps and poisons. Sullivan employs the word “thigmophilic,” meaning “touch-loving,” to explain that rats like to touch walls and corners as they travel, which is perhaps why white rats are used so often in laboratory tests of maze-traversing and memory. Finally, in this chapter Sullivan brings up the folklore of the Rat King. He will return to each of these topics at expanded length throughout the rest of his book.
After hunting for a suitable observation point, Sullivan selected Edens Alley, and the history he provides, as well as his vivid, smell-resplendent descriptions, conjure this alley to life. Employees at nearby restaurants toss bags of garbage into the alley, so that its cobblestones are greasy and dirty, creating a veritable rat heaven. The rats gnaw open the bags and feast, then carry bits of food down their holes to other, nesting rats. Quotes from Sullivan's journal detailing his observations on a winter evening illustrate his gift for the well-placed literary allusion and his sense of humor:
More garbage comes up out of the bottom of the Irish bar. One bag lands on a rodent bait station that is ancient and nearly destroyed. The garbage tide is rising. I am reminded of [poet John] Milton, in “Lycidas”: “tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” Though when I am reminded of it the words woods and pastures are replaced by trash.
A little further down this page, Sullivan shows his patience and philosophical temperament: “What exactly am I waiting here for? Nature, even rat nature, does not answer mortals, even...
(The entire section is 1804 words.)
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