Robert Sullivan, Rats

Fun book, this one. Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at Vogue and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, but while both these details lend him cred as a writer, neither one prepares you for the subject of this book - Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Rats? Really? This, I had to read.

But I was disappointed. There's plenty of rat information, lots of rat stories, high-quality natural observation, but the focus isn't on rats, but on Robert Sullivan. It fairly closely mimics nineteenth-century natural history writing, which frankly is what I was hoping for and what I wanted, but it's a simulacrum. A good nineteenth-century writer stayed out of the way, even though his (or her, less frequently) voice was an important part of the aesthetic effect. But Sullivan makes his own gaining of knowledge more important than the knowledge itself, and that doesn't work for me. Come on, it's getting late in the day to be this self-important, no? Admittedly his year of observation is interrupted by 9/11, since the alley in which he spent his time was only a few blocks from the WTC Towers, so it'd be understandable that people are more important than the actual objects of study, but 9/11 remains firmly in the background. Rats just aren't important - which is odd, since the book is supposed to be about them.

But let me backtrack to sum up.

Sullivan does a really nice job of bringing you into the alley with him and the rats, and his uncovering of the layered history of New York City is both evocative and efficiently handled. This is a book worth spending time with, even though it's not quite what I expected and hence not quite my thing. It's light, the way a New Yorker's cartoonist might handle a subject that doesn't seem all that important. Maybe that's unfair, but there was more here than Sullivan gave us, and with this book out there and selling well, publishers would think there's no room in the market for another one on rats.

And that's a damned shame, and it makes me cranky.


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