This book is not just an account of a year spent in a garbage strewn, rat infested alley in lower Manhattan. You’ll learn more than you thought was possible about rats and will probably be better at spotting rats in your own town/city when you’re walking through the streets at night because you’ll know the kinds of places they like to live and use as shortcuts to get from one place to another.
For example since reading the book, while standing on Platform 23 at Sydney’s Central station, I’ve noticed one place along the tracks where rats regularly run from under the platform to a small hole in the wall.
I was surprised to find the book quite gripping considering it’s focus on one topic. Sullivan succeeds in keeping the reader’s attention by weaving descriptions of his own local alleyway at night with a Rats perspective of American history, profiles of famous exterminators and the factors which attract rats including garbage and food scraps that aren’t disposed of in garbage bins, abandoned buildings, long forgotten and disused streets etc
When Sullivan was interviewed by powells.com writer Dave Weich and asked whether sanitation was the key to controlling rat populations he replied:
Yes. Which comes down to our presence. What does our presence do? In Medieval Italy, there was a plan at one point… They thought it was amazing how much garbage rats ate, and they thought, What if we just give all our garbage to the rats? Then the rats would eat it and make it into these easily managed little… scat. Then they could just sweep it away and that would take care of all their garbage.
We think rats are disgusting, but they’re not. They’re just another creature. It’s not their fault they live in our garbage. In fact, our garbage is our fault, if there’s any fault. The reason people are so disgusted by rats is that rats point to what is disgusting about us. We always have to have something bad in our sights to highlight our goodness. You need evil so that good can exist. Really, in nature, it can seem evil, but it’s not.
An excerpt from a promotional article by the publishers Allen & Unwin follows:
Surprisingly funny and compulsively readable, Rats accounts how Sullivan spends a year with a notebook and night-vision goggles, hunting for fabled rat-kings, trapping a rat of his own, and trying (and failing) to conquer his own fear of rats.
He meets the exterminators, garbage men and civic activists who play their part in the centuries-old war between human city-dweller and wild city rat. He travels to a bizarre Midwestern conference on rats that brings together the leading experts on rat history, behaviour and control (did you know that one pair of rats has the potential for 15,000 descendants in a year? That rats’ teeth are harder than steel?) And he reveals the many ways rats’ lives mirror those of humans. Sullivan’s unusual and absorbing book earns a place alongside the classics of travel writing.