Magazine article The Spectator

Rats

Magazine article The Spectator

Rats

Article excerpt

The year of the rat RATS by Robert Sullivan Cranta, £12, pp. 256, ISBN 1862077614 £11 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

'Ah,' Robert Sullivan exclaims in this artful book, 'the excitement, the nail-biting and palpably semi-wild thrill of ratting in the city!' An otherwise apparently sane American writer and journalist, Sullivan chose to spend four seasons observing the rats in New York's Eden's Alley, five blocks from Broadway. Settling down with night-vision binoculars, a folding chair and a thermos, he catalogued the behaviour of 'his' rats as they scuttled over soot-peppered ice or foraged through bags of restaurant detritus literally fuming in the volcanic heat of a New York summer. His aim, he said, was 'to arrive at some truth about rats'.

The book that emerged embraces all aspects of Rattus noivegicus. Besides purveying biological data of the sexual habits variety, Sullivan discourses on the history of rats as vectors, examining rat-borne plagues from the mediaeval period onwards (a case was reported in New York in 2002). He dutifully voyaged away from his alley to learn about rats at conferences all over the United States, and he talked at length to sanitation workers, exterminators and pest control officers - 'the philosopher-kings of the rat-infested world'. (In the politically correct language of civic America you must now 'exclude' pigeons, not kill them, and exterminators say things like 'the object is to build out pests without pesticides.')

Just over halfway through the book we get, for the first time, something approaching action: in one heady moment, our man catches a rat. Most of the time tendrils of digression take the place of plot. We read half a page on the mania for native plants in Nazi Germany, and another on the man who introduced European starlings to America. Yet they are not really digressions: there is an invisible unity of purpose that holds the story together like glue, and extraneous comment is rigorously expunged. For a few weeks after 9/11, Eden's Alley was inaccessible. But Sullivan studiously avoids a discussion of the catastrophe and its aftermath.

So many dreary non-fiction writers of Sullivan's generation, both here and in the US, never even think about form, and it's stimulating to find someone intelligent and good who is prepared to experiment. …

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