Rats: a year with New York's most unwanted inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan

A rodent's-eye view of the Big Apple

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The Independent Culture

First, let's get one thing straight. The Rat King is not the villain from The Nutcracker. It's not even an alpha-male rat. It's a cluster of rats - some probably dead - whose tails have knotted together. The live ones may be fed by other rats (New York rats' favourite foodstuffs include scrambled eggs, macaroni cheese, cooked sweetcorn, potatoes and oatmeal. Hold the salad). Or they may just be left to die. There is, Robert Sullivan tells us in his notes, a "disgusting" picture of one in a book entitled The Rat: a Perverse Miscellany.

First, let's get one thing straight. The Rat King is not the villain from The Nutcracker. It's not even an alpha-male rat. It's a cluster of rats - some probably dead - whose tails have knotted together. The live ones may be fed by other rats (New York rats' favourite foodstuffs include scrambled eggs, macaroni cheese, cooked sweetcorn, potatoes and oatmeal. Hold the salad). Or they may just be left to die. There is, Robert Sullivan tells us in his notes, a "disgusting" picture of one in a book entitled The Rat: a Perverse Miscellany.

Sullivan has done his research. Not only has he sat out with binoculars and a night-vision gadget, doing a David Attenborough on Rattus norvegicus in its natural habitat. He has also read up on the history of rats and their relationship with the city. He has become unfeasibly knowledgeable about pest control and controllers, bubonic plague and the correlations between rat populations, disease, rubbish, overcrowding and poverty.

All this burrowing into rat arcana serves to bring to life a wonderfully informative, often funny and only occasionally revolting portrait of New York and its characters. There's the 19th-century "sportsman and rat fight impresario", Kit Burns, who ran the city's most famous pit, in which dogs would kill rats, rats would kill each other, rats would, occasionally, kill dogs, and men would kill rats by biting their heads off. His adversary was Henry Bergh, founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - even rats.

There are the people's champions. Isaac Sears led the first battle of the American revolution, on Golden Hill at the top of the alley where Sullivan did his rat watch and John DeLury organised sanitation workers and, by the 1970s, managed to get their salaries brought into line with police and firefighters. Then there's the archaeology of New York, a city, like many others, built on top of itself, with three levels of sewers. As one pest controller explained wonderingly to Sullivan: "the ones from the 1800s, the ones from the 1700s, and the ones they don't have maps for anymore". In a near-mirror image to the way that the highest strata of New York society rarely sees a rat, the rats in the deepest, map-less sewers have never seen man.

Perhaps because of the rat-revulsion he never quite conquers, Sullivan leaves a few questions unanswered. If the lowest-level rats have never seen people, have they ever eaten scrambled egg? What do they eat? Can they see? How do the tails of the Rat King tangle up together? And what rattish magic has Sullivan wrought to make me care about the answers to these questions?

The reviewer's "Friends" is published by Bloomsbury

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