On its surface, The Blue Rat, by Michael Hartnett, is the story of an immoral real estate magnate, bent on stamping his name across New York through odious and ugly buildings, blighting the landscape of Manhattan, and those fighting to preserve the beauty and history of a city they cherish.
Leading this fight is El Buscador, aka the Tour Guide, a man lost to sorrow yet immutably tied to the history, pathos, and joy of being a New Yorker. A renowned repository of the history and underside of greater gotham, he is joined by a gallery of characters from a young reporter, Pratt, going a little too deep into his own underground investigations, the reporter’s weary editor, Mavis, and the titular Timothy Terrance Tolland, the object of their hatred and scorn.
As befits New York, Tolland is all about himself in all aspects, from his buildings, collections, and the stories he weaves, to the corruption, narcissism, and hubris he embodies. The question is whether he has the right, by any means, to stamp New York with his particular brand of awful, including the spread of blue rats. To El Buscador the answer is no, and he’s willing to employ any actions to stop Tolland.
The difference between them is whether there is a line to be drawn in how far they will go.
The joy of The Blue Rat is multifaceted. It’s not just the story, which hums along and never drags, nor the writing, which is crisp and clever. Like all good story tellers, Hartnett imbues his book not only with the here and now of the story, but of its place in the greater history of a city he clearly loves, that stretches both above and below what we see, or think we see. Like all great cities beyond a certain age, New York is its history, which Hartnett shares through El Buscador.
Then there is the social satire, clearly in Tolland, of a man so possessed of himself that no act is too brazen or foul, and how he personifies the zeitgeist of this particular age. In a twist of irony, Tolland is offended by any comparisons to Trump, whom he considers a fraud, even as he covets a fraudulent piece of Trumpian history.
That however, is hardly the beginning or end, for there are all those whose lives are impacted by people like Tolland and the damage they do in both large and small ways. For El Buscador and his allies, the very people Tolland abuses and degrades, the question is how much of that they can stand.
I highly recommend this book.
©2019 David William Pearce