by Robert Sullivan, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Wednesday April 21, 7:30 pm
Here are a few fascinating facts I learned from reading Rats by Robert Sullivan: Rats can have sex up to 20 times a day; in cramped conditions, the tails of up to 32 rats can become forever entangled, creating a swarming rat constellation called a Rat King; in the 19th Century, rat fighting was a popular form of lowbrow entertainment, wherein a dog would be set loose in a pit with 50 or so rats and timed to see how long it took him to kill all the vermin. Unfortunately, I had to wade through over 200 pages of lackluster writing to glean these interesting tidbits.
New Yorker Robert Sullivan began studying rats because he was amazed by their universal disdain and lack of study. The author repeatedly stresses that he is not a "rat guy," and is as disgusted and scared by the creatures as any of us. That didn't stop him from devoting his nights to field research, staking out his perfect rat alley, which he annoyingly compares to Walden Pond--positing himself as Thoreau.
Sullivan doesn't seem to have enough material to fill a book, and attempts to compensate by including every bit of research that he uncovered preparing for the book. Lengthy chapters about sanitation strikes and civil rights leaders who used rats as symbols for substandard housing are weighed down with anecdotal details and make for sluggish reading. The tone of the book is usually light-hearted, but Sullivan's not a particularly funny writer, and misses a lot of the latent absurdities of being a cosmopolitan rat hunter. When he attends the National Pest Control Convention in Milwaukee, one can't help but imagine how a humorist like Bill Bryson would have recounted the trade show, whereas Sullivan lists every item that he tried at a local German restaurant.
My final bone of contention is about the book's subtitle: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. What city is that? Tuscaloosa? Yakima? Walla Walla? Rats may be the most interesting book on the subject you'll ever read, but you'll never wonder why it's the only book on the shelf under that category. CHAS BOWIE