A skillful nature writer goes on rat patrol and records a year with vermin.
In his journal of a rat year, Sullivan (A Whale Hunt, 2000, etc.) 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.