Robert Sullivan's delightful and revolting Rats... is .... the most exhaustive, nauseating and pleasurable compendium of rat facts ever set down. Facts such as: wherever there are human beings, there are rats. China is where the rat originated, and where you can find it on restaurant menus. Rat populations increase in times of war. New York City battled an epic rat infestation at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, and was obliged to fill the ruins with poison. A third of the world's food supply is consumed or destroyed by rats. Rats have eaten cadavers in the New York City coroner's office. Rats have attacked and killed homeless people sleeping on the streets of Manhattan. There are more rodents currently infected with plague in North America (mostly in rural western states: Wyoming, Montana, Colorado) than there were in Europe at the time of the Black Death. Whenever we see a rat, it's a weak rat, forced into the open to look for food; the strong ones stay out of sight. Brown rats survived nuclear testing in the Pacific by staying deep down in their burrows. There have always been rats in the White House. Exterminators will always have work. 'Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth,' an exterminator told Mitchell sixty years ago. 'A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skilfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read.' A pest control technician - as they're now called, 'exterminator' having a deceptive air of finality - told Sullivan that a 'sniper with a night-vision scope' is the only way to kill a rat of the semi-literate kind.
LRB | Sean Wilsey: