29 January 2014

Rats (Robert Sullivan)

Many moons ago, I paired up Rats with Andrew Blechman's Pigeons as a Goodbye-New-York-City gift to myself, for obvious reasons. Yes, I wasn't only the weirdo who said "Hey buddy, how's it going?" to pigeons on the street, I always squeaked with joy at rats on the subway tracks or scurrying along the platform: "Good job, little guy! I'm proud of you!"

I am perversely proud of the rat, for turning human civilization to its advantage, spreading with agriculture across the globe, finding a niche in cities filled with garbage--and becoming the most common mammal in the world. They've got a fearlessness and adaptability I admire (and envy). And yes, I think they're cute, even their lil naked tails.

So integrated is the rat into urban life that it's rarely considered in naturalistic terms--there was no Planet Earth segment on the NYC rat, for instance. Sullivan, however, decides to approach them this way, observing them in their unnatural natural habitat: a single alley on the Lower East Side, which he watches over four seasons' worth of nights (broken by the cataclysm of 9/11). He's a great tour guide, with an infectious enthusiasm and a willingness to go off on tangents, burrowing ratlike into all the corners of his story--anywhere there's a tasty morsel of information.

Interspersed with his surveillance, then, are wide-ranging chapters on the relationship of rats to man and specifically to cities; he talks to exterminators both private and public (yes, NYC has a city department dedicated to pest control), delves into the biography of 19th-century rat-fight entrepreneur Kit Burns, details the arrival of bubonic plague (carried by the rat flea) in the U.S. The latter's an astonishing tale--the first victims showed up in San Francisco's Chinatown in March 1900, and a charming mix of racism and business interests covered it up, mayor and governor alike denying that anyone had ever been diagnosed, ruining the career of the doctor who'd made the discovery. And that's why plague is endemic to New Mexico today.

Also, FYI, I just this minute noticed there's a rat on the cover.

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