Tales of Ratman
At a point near the end of The Blue Rat, an extraordinary novel by Michael Hartnett, I was transported back many decades to my boyhood, when I sat with my dad on the living room floor next to a radio as we listened to a dramatization of George Orwell’s 1984. The only thing I remember was the scene in which a cage with a rat was fitted over a man’s face, the door open, and the man’s screams as the rat began gnawing.
The scene in The Blue Rat, which occurs in a cemetery, is not quite as horrific, but is nonetheless vividly gruesome. It is one of a few grisly, but less so, incidences, including an encounter with an attacking pit bull at the office of the novel’s antagonist, in a compelling book that fits into the literary genre with its often witty dialogue, and allusions to works of art and literature, Greek mythology, and historical events. It is, in other words, abundantly literate. Offsetting the few violent scenes is a macbre, but urbane, humor that is especially appropriate for the Halloween celebrations which are hard upon us.
Will the real Trump stand up, please?
El Buscador, aka The Tour Guide, is on a mission to expose the corruption of Timothy Terrence Tolland, a real estate mogul hated by the New York City populace for the architectural abominations he defaces the urban landscape with. Among his enemies are the subcontractors and various employees he stiffs or underpays, and the immigrants he tries to deport when they seek earned wages. In one spot, Tolland is described as “an extraordinary bag of insecurities” who has “rudimentary verbal skills,” and asks media interviewers “never to contradict me or differ from me in any way.” The reader is certain Tolland is a portrait of Donald J. Trump, but then that real estate developer is introduced as a competitor of Tolland’s. Nonetheless, Tolland serves as a Trump surrogate. Tolland’s nefarious business dealings and his flirtation with bankruptcy mirror Trump (who actually did go bankrupt – six times). (The rodent metaphor for Trump’s sleaziness gained authenticity a couple of weeks ago when a mouse fell from the ceiling in the White House press booth onto NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander’s lap. Last year, a rat was seen on the lawn.)
With Tolland controlling a city that despises him, The Blue Rat is eerily prescient. Published in early 2019, it probably was authored in early-to-mid 2018, before the full extent of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions as president became known, and his popularity began declining. As such, it has tinctures of the aforementioned 1984, which warns of, as Wikipedia puts it, “official deception, secret surveillance, brazenly misleading terminology, and
But The Tour Guide’s hatred of Tolland extends beyond the harm he brings to the Guide’s beloved city. Tolland forced El Buscador’s parents out of one of his rental apartment buildings, and they had to move to Florida, far from their son.
For years, El Buscador has led individuals on tours to sites unknown to the general population. He lives in seclusion in an abandoned subway station, which, as he embarks on his goal of exposing Tolland’s criminality and depravity, becomes his point of departure into the subterranean reaches of the city, where he discovers hidden documents. In these recesses beneath the streets, among cables and sewer pipes, he wards off rats that have been dyed blue as Tolland’s signature. Nate Pratt, a reporter for The Herald, does his own investigating in these rat habitations, slaying the rodents when they come too close, then roasting and eating them. The mystery of his motivation for such perverted behavior is finally revealed in a statement of principles he describes in a Herald column.
The novel is laced with a mélange of such peculiar characters, introduced subtly a la Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. They at once stretch the boundaries of verisimilitude and are vividly real. Hartnett deftly weaves them into a story that has the main character collaborating with newspaper reporters and editor Mavis in working underground, often literally, to expose the underhanded ways by which Tolland subverts the will of the people in building his aesthetically repugnant skyscrapers. They team with other characters to exact revenge on Tolland’s associates by sneaking his blue-dyed rats into the basements of their homes.
Romance enters the picture tangentially, as El Buscador nurses an attraction for editor Mavis, whose appearance he likens to an African queen, while retaining a friendship with his ex-lover, the now paraplegic Jeanne, who knows him intimately as Luke and assists his sleuthing by digging up information via computer.
Hartnett displays a detailed knowledge of his hometown, having The Tour Guide take people to obscure, but historically important, locations, such as a rat pit where men gambled on how many rats their dogs could slaughter, a sport that Tolland revives. More sites are revealed through a boat tour of New York City islands piloted by Winston J. Melville, a prominent explorer who uses his notoriety to get El Buscador initiated into the Explorer’s Club by virtue of his subterranean historical discoveries. He and Pratt are transported past a series of bridges and islands, and Melville finally docks at a spot hidden by a thicket.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Longtime New Yorkers will no doubt revel in their recognition of most of the places depicted in the book, but some sites likely will be eye openers. “Just as the boat seemed to be floating right toward the dock at Johnny’s Reef, Melville veered right, and a green island lay before them, albeit with a number of bulldozers dotting the landscape … While Hart Island was dotted with trees and ruins of buildings long fallen into desuetude, the rows and rows of trench graves were the island’s dominant features.” It was a potter’s field where graves were dug by Rikers Island prisoners for coffins holding bodies of society’s nameless souls, delivered twice a week.
Hartnett’s narration calls to mind another writer, from decades past: “Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Two eras, almost a century apart, and two novels, both set in New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald offers a paean to a burgeoning nation, and Michael Hartnett lays down a loving literary apology for its greatest symbol.