Friday, September 05, 2008

39. Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats pictureEverybody loves to hear about rats and it's surprising that a book of this nature wasn't attempted before. Basically, the author decided to sit in a New York City alley for a year and observe the rats. I am always intrigued by the idea of these kinds of books (Salt, Cod, etc.), the idea that you can read a single, relatively light volume and have a nice general overview of the subject. But I can rarely actually bring myself to read them. The subject matter here convinced me to actually take the plunge. Rats got a lot of fanfare when it came out and I've been looking for it for a while. In a fit of consumerist frenzy, I bought it and several other trade paperbacks new at Dark Carnival! I don't know what's come over me. Perhaps it's the giddiness as I seem to be potentially capable of achieving my goal this year.

However, this book also confirmed for me that my instinctual aversion towards these kinds of books was correct. I don't actually like them. There are two problems with these kinds of books. One is that it gives the author the opportunity to take all these little side trips into history and science and whatever, often trips that are tangentially related at best to the subject at hand. Two, is that they then attempt to tie it all up with some grand theme or symbol or something. I guess because they are writing for a general audience, they feel the need to have an overarching (or several) idea to replace the satisfaction of the narrative. It's very sloppy history and makes for distracted reading.

My understanding of Rats was that it was about the guy sitting in the alley, observing and getting to know the rats. But actually only about a quarter of the entire text covers that. He describes the basic behaviour of the rat as science understands it in the beginning chapter and we learn nothing more after that. I was hoping for a profound examination of their lives in this alley. I wanted him to get to know specific rats, to describe all their activities, maybe following them everywhere, eventually even into their lair. There is none of that. He basically watches them in the alley a few times and then all of a sudden launches into a history of the guy who started the garbageman's union, or the guy who was responsible for some riots in the American Revolution. Some of the asides are interesting and entertaining, particularly the ones where he meets exterminators and other rat experts. But overall you get the feeling he never really committed properly to being in the alley and ended up padding his book with all kinds of other irrelevant material.

There are some nice little rat stories in here and one of his points is that everyone has one, but you could find those on the internet. So, yes, I was let down from this book and wouldn't recommend it.

But I will share one of my rat stories with you! I was at a rooftop party one summer on the Lower East Side. After it wound down, several of us hung around and we ended up just leaning over the roof, talking and drinking. It was at least 3 in the morning. We started to see some rats walking around on the deserted street below. After paying attention, we realized that it was teeming with rats, and some really massive ones. They would go in and out of doors, gutters, whatever. We spent about an hour oohing and aahing, ("hey look at that massive one by the car!"). Eventually, we decided to break it up and head home and that's when we all realized we were going to have to go out through that street! We decided to do it as a team, making a lot of noise and sticking together until we got to a less isolated street. We survived but that moment of realization was a pretty funny one. We were genuinely scared.


Unknown said...

I think that I have the same aversion to these sorts of books as you do. The topic is so narrow that I suspect one would just get sick of rats, salt, cod, etc by the end of the book.

Every winter we used to have rats trying to nest in our woodpile at my parents place. It was always a fun adventure to roust them out and then have the dog chase them down,

Buzby said...

Rats just gross me out.

That Hank said...

I've got rats in my walls. Every now and then I come home to find a nasty bugger dead on the bathroom floor, with my cat looking very proud indeed.

Doc said...

This is one of those books I have "almost" bought a dozen times. Thanks for reviewing it and finally putting my impulse to rest.

I don't mind tightly focused treatises like this, at least I don't mind the concept. Other than Never Cry Wolf, though, (which is really kind of a different animal ... ha ha) I have never really found one I liked all that much.