three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
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Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants

A-RatsModeling his treatise on rats on Thoreau’s classic contemplation of nature, Walden, Sullivan examines a small plot of land—in this case, a rat-infested Manhattan alley—to explore his ambivalent feelings toward rats and uncover some life lessons. Armed with a notebook, camping stool, and night-vision goggles, Sullivan spent his nights studying rodents’ habits and days pursuing exterminators and mining city archives. He unearths interesting ratanalia: rat fleas spread the Black Death in the Middle Ages, 19th–century rats fought in dog arenas, and rodents led to tenement reform. He concludes, however, that rats, not people, live Thoreau’s quiet lives of desperation, "skittering in fear" in "swamps and dumps."
Bloomsbury. 242 pages. $23.95.

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s considerable humor in this book. … Rat will both entertain and edify you about a part of the world you never thought much about and never really wanted to—if it doesn’t creep you out first." Henry Kisor

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Rats is a sort of Bizarro-Walden, an exercise in really knowing one small, unremarkable and, in this case, revolting plot of ground." Joann C. Gutin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[Rats] is by far the best source of entertaining dinner conversation to come out since Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography. … Sullivan’s infectious gusto for the subject matter, married with his layman’s approach to examining it (look at rats, talk to people about rats, reads some rat books), makes for a captivating and breezy book." Chelsea Cain

NY Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While his last few chapters devolve into a grandiose, metaphor-mad reverie, his book as a whole is a lively, informative compendium of facts, theories and musings about Rattus norvegicus, a k a the Norway or brown rat." Michiko Kakutani

SD Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"But in the end you still wonder why Sullivan found rats so compelling in the first place. … You end up marveling not only at the spectacular success of the rat community, but also at the stamina of the citified human who is able to be so fascinated by vermin." Neal Matthews

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"For [Sullivan], the rat is the New Yorker par excellence, the plucky immigrant who set foot in Manhattan just about the time of the American Revolution and, by guile and persistence, put down roots and prospered. … Half the time Sullivan cannot make out exactly what’s happening in the alley, which is, after all, murky, and his powers of deduction can be comically Clouseau-like." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Did you hear about the "serial killer" rats that attacked a Manhattan woman? Yes, it’s true. In this quixotic and accessible meditation on rats and people, Sullivan, author of Meadowlands, melds personal observation and local history to shed light on, literally, New York’s most despised residents. He at first begrudges their existence, but comes to admire their ceaseless perseverance—particularly in the face of the city’s "pest control technicians," a story told with humor and insight. Pretentious philosophical wanderings (Like rats, "We are beaten down but we come back again.") and factual diversions (including retellings of Revolutionary War skirmishes) distract from the narrative thrust. But Rats will entertain and educate—and possibly have you checking your basement more regularly.

Also by the Author

A-Meadowlands.epsThe Meadowlands Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City | Robert Sullivan (1998): Sullivan studies a slightly larger piece of real estate: the polluted "wilderness" five miles outside of New York City.