Rats Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Robert Sullivan

Bloomsbury USA



256 Pages


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Love them or loathe them, rats are here to stay—city dwellers as much as (or maybe more than) we are, surviving on the effluvia of our society. In Rats Robert Sullivan spends a year investigating a rat-infested alley just a few blocks away from Wall Street. Sullivan gets to know not just the beast but its friends and foes: the exterminators, the sanitation workers, the agitators and activists who have played their part in the centuries-old war between human city and wild city rat. Sullivan looks deep into the largely unrecorded history of New York City and its masses—its herd-of-rats-like mob. Funny, wise, sometimes disgusting, but always compulsively readable, Rats earns its unlikely place alongside the great classics of nature writing.


Praise for Rats

"Sullivan leavens his systemic study with anecdotal digressions, approaching his fleet-footed, fast-food-loving quarry with a naturalist's curiosity and a storyteller's fluency."—New York magazine

"Rats is a sort of bizarro-Walden, an exercise in really knowing one small, unremarkable and, in this case, revolting plot of ground. In Sullivan's mirror Walden it's the rats, not the people, who live lives of quiet desperation, 'hiding beneath the table of man, under stress, skittering in fear.'"—Newsday

"Sullivan persuasively associates the 'truth' he learns about rats with a deeper understanding of both the history of New York City and the essence of mankind."—The New York Observer

"Rats is the rare book that both delights and makes your skin crawl . . . Insightful, entertaining and—yes—a little bit creepy."—Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of Cod and Salt

"For a year, Sullivan made pilgrimages to a 'filth-slicked little alley' near City Hall to observe rats in their natural habitat. He also trolled libraries for rat lore and interviewed exterminators, biologists, politicians, and ordinary citizens about the timeless struggle against New York's 'most unwanted inhabitants.' The logic behind his peregrinations is often elusive, but the result is a wealth of satisfying information: rats like raw beef, but they like macaroni-and-cheese even more; bringing a rat to court is an effective way to make a point about poor housing conditions; there are more plague-infected rodents in North America today than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death. Sullivan never falls in love with his subject the way he did in his book on the Meadowlands—rats are rats, after all—but he does persuade us that rats are 'our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same.'"—The New Yorker

"Few subjects would seem less immediately appealing to the general reader than rats. So all the more credit must go to Robert Sullivan, who has written an immensely lively, enjoyable, learned, witty, and, yes, appealing book on these damnable creatures. Readers acquainted with Sullivan's previous triumph, The Meadowlands, about a New Jersey dump-swamp-wilderness, will anticipate this author's ability to take an unprepossessing terrain and expose its hidden dimensions, through ever-widening circles of expertise, paradox and wonderment. He has set up his shop at the intersection of science and belles-lettres, nature reporting and urbanism, and manages it all beautifully."—Phillip Lopate, The Washington Post

"Sullivan's narration reads like a monologue by a charming and witty party guest, albeit his topic is the city rat. No fact is too minute or detail too obscure. In his research, the author consulted many ‘rat experts,’ including a New York exterminator who shared the lower Manhattan alley that became the location for his observations. Tales of rats' run-ins with humans include a particularly disturbing one about a woman who was ‘attacked’ by the rodents near his observation place. One chapter is dedicated to the Irish immigrant who hosted rat fights in his bar in the 1840s. Each of these tales is filled with digressions—the history of some of the buildings in the alley, the founding of the SPCA. The greatest digression occurs with regard to the World Trade Center catastrophe. Because Sullivan's alley was so close to the scene, his observations were necessarily interrupted, and when he returned, of course things had changed. But so singular is his vision that even this disaster is put into a rat context—how exterminators were on the job, how the subject of rats was unmentionable in discussions about disaster cleanup, even though his observations showed that rats were plentiful. This creative writer has taken on a seemingly unappealing subject and turned it into a top-notch page-turner."—School Library Journal

"In this excellent narrative, Sullivan uses the brown rat as the vehicle for a labyrinthine history of the Big Apple. After pointing out a host of facts about rats that are sure to make you start itching, Sullivan quickly focuses in on the rat's seemingly inexhaustible number of connections to mankind. Observing a group of rats in a New York City alley, just blocks from a pre-September 11 World Trade Center, leads Sullivan into a timeless world that has more twists than Manhattan's rat-friendly underbelly. Conversations and field studies with 'pest control technicians' spirit him back to 1960s Harlem, when rat infestations played a part in the Civil Rights movement and the creation of tenants' organizations. Researching the names of the streets and landmarks near the rats' homes, Sullivan is led even deeper into the city's history till he is back to the 19th century, when the real gangs of New York were the packs of rats that overran the city's bustling docks. Like any true New Yorker, Sullivan is able to convey simultaneously the feelings of disgust and awe that most city dwellers have for the scurrying masses that live among them. These feelings, coupled with his ability to literally and figuratively insert himself into the company of his hairy neighbors, help to personalize the myriad of topics—urban renewal, labor strikes, congressional bills, disease control, September 11—that rats have nosed their way into over the years. This book is a must pickup for every city dweller, even if you'll feel like you need to wash your hands when you put it down."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A skillful nature writer goes on rat patrol and records a year with vermin. In his journal of a rat year, Sullivan deduces that the rat is a permanent companion to humans, living where mankind lives, eating what mankind eats. (He provides a menu of Rodentia's favorite and least-liked foods.) Alley rats, sewer rats, toilet rats—all those urban Norway rats—live in every big city in America. And, right now, if they're not eating, they're copulating. Often a foot long before the tail, these nasty city slickers dig their nests with separate bolt-holes for quick escapes. Contemplating such rat lore nightly in an alley not far from the World Trade Center, Sullivan finds much to chew on. Inevitably, there's the Black Death and how it ravaged medieval Europe, but there was also plague in California a century ago. That leads to some history of germ warfare, a garbage strike, rat-baiting in Old New York, and a story of the colonial Liberty Boys. Sullivan studies publications like Pest Control Technology as well as historical texts. He salutes famous rat-catchers while he hangs out with the rodent's natural predators: exterminators. He travels out of town to consort with the foremost minds of pest control. He follows the Sisyphean pros with the enthusiasm of a cub police reporter as they wrestle to draw rat blood from their prey. Eventually, he traps a rat himself. He comes to recognize one old rodent, and he surely cut a curious figure running beside a dashing rat to clock its speed. After September 11, Sullivan returned to his alley to find that the vermin fared well. Taken with the wisdom of the exterminators, absorbed in ratological study, our writer seems to believe, finally, we are like rats, rats are like us. Sullivan tells all, writing, in prose worthy of Joseph Mitchell, a sort of Up in the Old Rat Hole: skittering, scurrying, terrific natural history."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Robert Sullivan is the author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is a contributing editor to Vogue and a longtime contributor to the New Yorker. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
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  • Robert Sullivan

  • Robert Sullivan is the author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship. A contributing editor to Vogue, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, and The Oregonian. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
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    Robert Sullivan