It's like 'Walden,' but with rats

A year-long study of the ingenious vermin that have conquered every continent

Anyone who lives in New York has a rat story. But oddly, after nearly 10 years in the Big Apple, I find my best yarn still comes from Boston. My father and I were moving my brother out of a Back Bay apartment when a rat scuttled out from behind some trash. Instead of scurrying back toward its warren, the rat charged, causing both of us - and my father is no small man - to leap in the air like wide receivers going up for a touchdown pass. The incident has never been spoken of again.

There are several stories of this ilk in Robert Sullivan's lively new book, "Rats," which grew out of a year the author spent perched on a stool with night-vision goggles in Eden's Alley, an obscure corner of lower Manhattan. There's one about a woman who left a restaurant and was attacked by a pack of rats that chased her to her car and then swarmed over the automobile once she was inside it. Another one concerns a woman who arrived home to discover a rat in her bathroom. An evening-long battle ensued, with her finally killing the vermin by filling her bathtub and tossing in Comet.

Most of us believe rats are ugly, greasy disease carriers who should just go away. So why is a writer whose pedigree includes publication in The New Yorker and other prestigious magazines bedding down in this territory? One answer, Sullivan says, is proximity. New York is infested with rats. His other rationale is more philosophical. "Rats have conquered every continent that humans have conquered, mostly with humans' aid," he writes, "and the not-so-epic seeming story of rats is close to one version of the epic story of man."

Dip further into this study and thoughts of comparison are obscured by gritty detail. Sullivan discovered some disturbing facts about Rattus norvegicus, better known as the brown rat. Like most rodents, it can collapse its spine to fit through tiny holes. Rats like to chew - explaining the 50,000 rat-bite victims every year - and phone operators estimate that 18 percent of all phone-cable disruptions come from rats. Rats live off garbage; they especially like beer and peanuts, according to one exterminator, but this hearty fare doesn't compromise their mobility. By filming the little guys, Sullivan discovered that they don't scuttle but gallop, and by running alongside them, he estimated their top speed at about six miles per hour.

For all its in-the-field data, "Rats" is best read as one man's peculiar, post-modern "Walden." In telling the story of rats in New York, Sullivan assembles the kind of meandering and richly entertaining story that Joseph Mitchell used to write. As in that old storyteller's work, the high points here come when Sullivan talks to the curious characters who live in rat world. One Lower East Side exterminator he met rides a motorcycle in his blue blazer and tie and is kin to George Trumble Ladd, the founder of modern psychology. Other rat followers come from less lofty family trees, like Derrick, a street person who lived near Theatre Alley in midtown Manhattan among over 100 rats he'd trained to scamper by stomping his foot.

The deeper one reads into "Rats," the less of a departure for Sullivan this seems. His two previous books, "The Meadowlands" and "A Whale Hunt," focused on the juxtapositions of the modern and urban with the ways of the wild. "Rats" draws upon the best of his strengths for scene-setting and controlled riffing, emerging as a tale so disgustingly specific that it's hard to put down. It seems unlikely that Sullivan will ever, like Thoreau, inspire back-to-the-alley copycats. On the other hand, "Rats" might generate sympathy for a truce in the longstanding war between rats and the human civilization they mimic.

John Freeman is a writer in New York whose reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. No rats were harmed during the writing of this review.

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