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Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants – Robert Sullivan ****

In Meadowlands, Robert Sullivan brought us an entertaining tour of the largely ignored wild lands out the outskirts of New York. In Rats, he does the same same, not so much for an ignored location as an unwanted co-resident: the New York rat.
Sullivan’s style is to immerse himself in the subject, sometimes to an extent that many would consider obsessive. Night after night he visits a New York alleyway and watches the rat nightlife as the inhabitants of the dark side of the Big Apple pick their way amongst the ample discards of the restaurants that back onto the alley.
Along the way you will learn a lot (sometimes more than you want to know) about the rat and its relationship to human beings. And, this being Sullivan, you will also learn about a whole variety of things that spin off at a tangent from the topic of rats. You might be amazed to discover that plague, the same disease that caused such disasters in the middle ages, is not only still in existence, but is carried by wild animals in the US today. You might be surprised to learn of a nearly forgotten key character of the US revolutionary war, who was responsible for the first battle in the conflict, which took place on one of Sullivan’s rat sites. You will meet the exterminators and pest control operatives who have a lot of respect for the rat. And, if you enjoy Sullivan’s sometimes poetic, always warm narrative style, you will have a great time (and become something of a rat expert in your own right along the way).
After a time, Sullivan becomes fascinated by a large rat hole in his pet alley, which descends a huge distance into the basement, ironically, of the union of pest controllers. This subject, combining as it does the wry humour of the location of the hole, and Sullivan’s ability to enthuse about something few others could find interesting – and to make it something worth reading – is brilliant.
You have to admire the effort that went into this book. Sullivan’s methods are delightfully haphazard, but he really throws himself into the subject, never seeming to worry about the human dangers of spending many hours in dark New York alleyways (though he does occasionally worry about the rats a little). It’s a fascinating read, and though the subject may occasionally make your skin crawl, it’s highly recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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