Robert Sullivan Tells All You Ever Wanted to Know about Rats

Vincent Price is a favorite actor of mine, with his tall good looks and his mellifluous voice that has been likened to “maple syrup being poured over a waffle.” It’s the type of voice that worked well on the radio drama of the 1940s (before radio was killed by tv) and my favorite radio program of all time Is “Three Skeleton Key “starring Vincent Price, about three men trapped in a lonely lighthouse by an army of ravenous rats, from which there is no…Escape.

I mention this for two reasons. One, to prosletyze old time radio in the hopes that my faithful readers will immediately seek out some of these great programs and judge for themselves…and also to explain why, when I saw a book entitled Rats, I did not immediately pass it by. I was in the non-fiction section, after all. I picked it up, glanced through it, and had to have it.

Rats! The very word sends a chill down the spine of anyone who hears it. Is it possible to write an entertaining book about one of nature’s most unpleasant creatures? Certainly – and Robert Sullivan achieves it.

Sullivan, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and author of A Whale Hunt and The Meadowlands, surpasses himself in this alternately amusing and chilling look at the rat world. He crafts his narrative with great skill, one is grinning even while the skin crawls. And, as is so important these days, it educates without one realizing it.

“Why rats?” Sullivan answers the question he knows prompts everyone to pick up the book in the first place. “Why rats in an alley? Why anything at all in a place where that is, let’s face it, so disgusting. One answer is proximity. Rats live in the world precisely where man lives, which is, needless to say, where I live. Rats have conquered every continent that humans have conquered, mostly with the humans’ aid, and the not-so-epic seeming story of rats is close to one version of the epic of man: when they arrive as immigrants to a newfound land, rats push out the creatures that have preceded them, multiply to such an extent as to stretch resources to the limit, consume their way toward famine-a point at which they decline until, once again, they are forced to fight, wander or die…”

Sullivan began his one-year study of rats – by hanging out at a local alley each night – after having his eye caught by a painting of the animals by John James Audobon, the “patron saint of American naturalists.” Actually, he started by studying Audobon, and the more he studied that naturalist and his attempts to study birds in their natural – wild habitat, he determined to study rats in their natural – urban one.

He begins with a history of the rat…the brown rat, which didn’t appear in Europe until the beginning of the eighteenth century. By 1926, this rat was in every state in America – the last state settled being Montana.

“In going to my alley, I was going where someone had gone before, of course, and I’m not just thinking of the millions of people who walk by it every year or the inebriated souls who stumble into it accidentally or the people who step into it because they think it’s an actual street, which it isn’t.”

Sullivan introduces us to David E. Davis, the “founding father of modern rat studies,” who proved during the 1940s that there wasn’t one rat for every human being in New York City – only one rat for every 36.

He introduces us to exterminators, to the alley (we get the complete history of its development, for “to know the city rat …one has to know the rat’s habitat, which is of course the city.” He introduces us to the rat wars – the war between rats and people such as that of the Branch Housing Projects on the Lower East Side, and even an invasion by rats on a “swanky stretch of Park Avenue” in 1969. He introduces us to rat-studiers, professional ones, that is, those who work for such industries as the Center for Disease Control, and study how rats are becoming immune to the traditional poisons used to kill them.

Rats is many things. It’s a rat-memoir of the year Sullivan spent watching rats in his alley, a rat-education, as Sullivan talks to all kinds of rat people. It’s a rat- history, the history of rats (and thus of mankind) from the earliest times. It’s a rat-catching lesson. It’s also a lesson in mankind’s ability to destroy itself (much as the rats do).

You’ll learn a lot of things by reading this book. And you’ll be entertained in the process.

There are germs for the plot of a horror story in the book, of course. One of the most chilling comments comes from to Larry, a rat-catcher, as he speaks of the layers and layers of New York City. “People don’t realize the subterranean conditions out there. People don’t realize the levels. People don’t realize that we got things down there from the Revolution. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s just layers of settlers here, that things just get bricked off, covered up and all. They’re not accessible to people, but they are to rats. And they have rats down there that have maybe never seen the surface. If they did, then they’d run people out. Like in the movies. You see, we only see the tail end of it. And we see only the weak rats, the ones that get force out to look for food.”

And Sullivan ends the book on a cheerful note (really): Remember: Rats are everywhere. Don’t think they’re not.

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Robert Sullivan. Boomsbury. 2004. 250 pages including Afterword and Notes. No index. ISBN: 1582343853. Available from

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