There are three common things that every true New Yorker knows:
- The subways never run regular on the weekends.
- Never go near the silver-painted-robot-dancers/cowboys-in-their-underwear tourist black-holes.
- If you are gonna live in the city you are going to learn a heck of a lot more than you ever thought you would about rats.
Perhaps no New Yorker in the history New York understands number 3 more than Robert Sullivan.
For approximately a year and half Sullivan studied rats. A modern-day John James Audubon, spending his nights in an alley with special vision goggles and spending his days hunting out the history behind the creature. Part diary, part history, part horror story, but all intriguing, he recorded his findings in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, which is darn close to being the best nonfiction title to come out this year.
Some disturbing things I learned from Mr. Sullivan:
Rats can gnaw through concrete and steel, and though I've got no idea what "biting pressure up to 7,000 lbs. per square inch" means, I still know enough to get the heebie-jebbies from hearing it.
One pair of rats can make 15,000 little ones a year. 15,000!
Rats skeletons can collapse to fit into holes as small as their skulls.
The huge, terrifying rats you've probably seen, the ones that let themselves be seen during the day, are the weak rats that can't fight off the other rats for food. Meaning those huge, terrifying rats are the small, least terrifying ones, which in turn is an utterly huge and terrifying thought!
Reading Rats for me was the equivalent of reading the Guinness Book of World Records when I was in third grade. I'm pretty sure that in third grade every sentence I uttered started "Did you know that the [largest/fastest/heaviest/oldest] [person/place/twin/thing] is " My mind couldn't get beyond those random bits of knowledge, and now, well on past third grade, reading Sullivan's book, I found myself doing the same thing with rat facts, spurting them out every time I opened my mouth a crease. Ramblin' on rats with friends, co-workers, family, complete strangers, basically anyone with ears that stayed stationary within my vocal range for more than two seconds.
Now Rats is not just an urban variation on Walden. It's actually much more. Though the idea of chronicling an entire year and a half of chasing rats is intriguing enough to create a good book, Sullivan took it about seven steps further. Not only did he follow the rats, but he traced their history down to miniscule details not even a Ph.D. student writing a thesis would have explored. Sullivan interviewed every prominent rat catcher in NY, politicians involved in rat decision making, the homeless who lived with rats, anyone on the street with a rat story to tell it seemed. He even chased the famous rat catcher Bobby Corrigan (think of him as the Elvis of the pest control world, only without the awful string of beach movies) from rat conference to rat conference, all the way to Chicago, in an attempt to speak with him, only for Sullivan to decide, when was finally was close enough to push his way through for an interview, that "It felt unfair, in fact, to take any of Bobby's time away from the many pest control operators who where his longtime fans, his devoted followers." He left Chicago and the rest of the book, without ever speaking with Corrigan.
The fact that he decided not to steal Corrigan's time illustrates the secret behind Rats. The true thing that makes Sullivan's book so great, is Sullivan himself. He is the quintessential model of a perfect narrator. He knows when to back his personal life away from the front of the text and he knows when inserting some human stories will further his points. "But enough about you, I think I hear the reader protesting" starts Sullivan in Chapter Two. He interviewed rat catchers with the excitement of meeting superheroes, powerful men and women who are capable of doing feats normal humans cannot. He spoke with the homeless never looking down on them but instead was in awe of their rat expertise and felt a genuine concern for their living situation. Sullivan seemed to find beauty in every tiny spec of NY street, and was fascinated by it. The small quips from his wife he included periodically remind you that he was real person with a real life and that didn't always involve chasing down interviews and sitting in an alley recording whether rats preferred cucumbers to kit-kats.