Spying on Rattus Norvegicus, Ratting on Homo Sapiens

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants , by Robert Sullivan. Bloomsbury, 242 pages, $23.95.

Robert Sullivan’s Rats is a strange book. The peculiarities extend even to the acknowledgments, a long list of names – and that’s it-in which Anna Wintour appears twice (in a book about rodents?). All three of Mr. Sullivan’s books are odd-the first was a gleeful guided tour of a vast, junk-strewn swamp, the second was about Native Americans whale-hunting in a canoe-but Rats is probably the oddest. Less charming than Meadowlands (1998) and less engaging than A Whale Hunt (2000), the new book is nonetheless fascinating in a creepy way, and covertly ambitious, too, in that the author persuasively associates the “truth” he learns about rats with a deeper understanding of both the history of New York City and the essence of mankind.

It all began-modestly, bizarrely-as a “nature experiment,” an attempt to “see the life of a rat in the city.” Mr. Sullivan decided to devote a whole year to watching rats-“four seasons spent among vermin.” But because the brown rat, rattus norvegicus, is the “mirror species” of homo sapiens (“Rats live in man’s parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage”), a look at rats is a look at ourselves. Having said so in a straightforward way right at the beginning, Mr. Sullivan goes on to insinuate it at every possible moment. The people in this book are rat-like. Or maybe the rats are people-like: “I once read a rat study that suggested that the likelihood that a rat will eat depends on how safe he feels at a food acquisition site in relation to how safe he feels in his nest, which, it has occurred to me, is not unlike a human apartment dweller’s consideration when ordering takeout.” Another study reveals that when one stressed rat enters a colony, “the rest of the colony will soon be stressed too.” Sound familiar? There’s a lot of human scurrying in this book, and a surfeit of stories about one human “ratting” on another. At one point Mr. Sullivan says, “I was feeling like a pest.”

The “nature experiment” took place downtown, a few blocks from Wall Street and City Hall, in a garbage-filled cobblestone passageway, L-shaped, called Edens Alley. (Suggestive name, that.) The scenery consists of an ailanthus tree, “the alley’s one nonconcrete event”; bags of trash from two restaurants and a gourmet supermarket; and a “giant,” mysterious hole in the ground with stairs leading down, out of sight. At night, there are lots and lots of rats. Equipped with a folding stool and a night-vision monocular, Mr. Sullivan spent nights in Edens Alley, watching. During the day, he studied “old books and old city newspapers,” learning the history of his rats’ habitat-and ours.

Rats is promiscuously digressive, with long passages on various New York characters like Harlem tenant-organizer Jesse Grey and John DeLury, the first president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (U.S.A.), who are only tangentially related to the topic. After insisting at the outset on a disciplined coherence (pet rats-“fancy” rats-are “not the subject of this book,” he writes sternly), Mr. Sullivan ends up rambling all over the city, chatting with countless exterminators (or pest-control technicians, if you prefer), back and forth over two and half centuries of urban history, and out to Milwaukee and Chicago to meet the world’s leading rat expert.

Sometimes it seems that Mr. Sullivan will do anything and go anywhere to avoid getting too close to rattus norvegicus. Rats make him nervous. We see them at a distance, plenty of them, and through the monocular, and even in a video he shot of a rat running (“I expected to see a kind of skittering, a spidery or crablike crawl. But when I analyzed the tape, I was amazed to see that the rat was almost galloping: the hind legs pushing the front legs up and forward, resulting in an elegant midair arch of the rat’s body”). What we don’t see is a rat close up, with the naked eye-at least not until page 170, when (with the help of professionals) he traps a specimen in an empty lot in Bushwick and examines it: “The gray back fur on top, the lighter-and-almost-white fur below. The long, rat-yellow teeth, the startlingly dexterous pink paws, with their long, thin, pink and prune-textured digits.”

A sharp observer and a talented writer, Mr. Sullivan can deliver high-definition snapshots of anything he sees, but one of the oddities of his book-a book that defines itself as a record of his direct observations-is how little time he seems to spend looking. The forgotten history of Edens Alley and nearby Gold Street and the revolutionary stirrings of mid-18th-century New York are certainly more interesting than rats rummaging in garbage bags-so we forgive him for writing up an account of the minor Revolutionary War hero Isaac Sears (circa 1730 to 1786), or for telling anecdotes about an outbreak of plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900. It’s either that or count more vermin. And when he’s actually in his alley-within spitting distance of his rats and consequently forced into uncomfortable mirror-gazing-we understand his impulse to indulge in poetic raptures with Transcendentalist reverb: “I stood still for a little longer … attempting to focus again, to calm my nerves, to concentrate on the energy of these seemingly caffeinated quiverings-to become an all-sensing, outer-focused, night-vision eye. How bold these smallest strokes of nature!” Here he succumbs to literary yearnings-to become, like Emerson, a “transparent eyeball”; elsewhere, he broods with Thoreau and enthuses with Whitman. Yes, it’s obviously pleasanter to replay the greatest hits of the American Renaissance than to listen to the scratching of rats in an alley.

Strangest of all, Rats turns out to be another book about Sept. 11. His alley is just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and when the towers fell and the tip of Manhattan was cordoned off, his rat-watching was put on hold. But rats thrive in a crisis. Maybe humans do, too. We know that things are going to be O.K., that the city will pull through, when the unending war between man and rat starts up again in earnest: Around the perimeter of Ground Zero, Mr. Sullivan-trained now to observe these things-detects “a tremendous show of antirodent strength.” But he also sees rats-and that, perversely, gives him hope: If they can make it against these odds, so can we. “We are the rats,” he writes, “who can survive where no other species could or would want to, in Edens Alley despoiled.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.