Ten Speed Press, $11.95, 178 pp.
Ten Speed Press, $7.95, 86 pp.
Is there anybody who really expects me to extend the slightest human courtesy to a cockroach? To live in harmony with these ugly critters? When I moved into my last apartment they quickly followed, crawling up my shower curtain, climbing across the occasional dirty dish I left in the sink. Holes in the wall of my kitchen, it seemed, were tunnels to a vast cockroach civilization hidden under the surface. The exterminator was helpless, leaving me a note advising me to dispose of my trash daily and wishing me luck. The bugs wouldn’t let me sleep; I would wake in the middle of the night, certain that I felt some critter running across my leg, only to throw back the blanket in fright and find nothing there. Had it been there, or had it fled unscathed to the floor, escaping detection? My cockroaches were set, it seemed, on nothing less than my complete withdrawal from their home.
I had to arm myself, prepare for the War to Take Back My Apartment. There would be no truce. They might survive an atomic blast, but not my full-frontal assault. A trip to the Safeway yielded roach motels, roach baitsthe ones with egg stoppersand a huge bottle of Raid, which I prominently displayed on the kitchen counter, daring the little devils to even peek out an antenna.
I won a few battles at first, spraying dead a cucaracha fiesta on the wall, checking the kitchen and finding a few more corpses every day, their little legs pointed toward the sky in lifeless resignation. But for each of their dead cousins, there were always more creeping out to greet me from inside the bread basket when I craved a grilled cheese, ruining my lunch.
Raid isn’t enough, I realized. Poison alone wasn’t going to do the trick; I needed to arm myself with knowledge. I had to know what they were thinking, to anticipate their movements. David George Gordon’s The Compleat Cockroach is a more thorough course on cockroach culture than I ever dreamed someone would take the time to put together. Of course, the time is right for a cockroach tell-all. As it is, blattarians (to call them by their proper scientific name) are as close to popular acceptance as they’ve ever been. Last year, MTV’s awe-inspiring promotional apparatus swung behind the network’s feature-film misadventure Joe’s Apartment, which featured thousands of aspiring roach movie stars and prompted co-star Robert Vaughn to complain during a promo about the preferential treatment the prima-donna insects were accorded on the set.
The Compleat Cockroach approaches its six-legged subjects with a startlingbut not unwarrantedreverence. After all, they were here 300 million years before mankind; Homo erectus in his bachelor cave was under blattarian siege 2 million years ago. Each page attacks the reader’s ignorance of the underfoot with literary flair and nuts-and-bolts knowledge, deftly dropping science among anecdotes to edify the frustrated roach warrior. The reader thrills to the story of a Tel Aviv housewife whose battle with one rambunctious roach left her husband in the hospital with severe burns, a broken pelvis, and broken ribs, and shudders with disgust at the nation’s worst case of infestationa one-story house hosting a cockroach population of between sixty and one hundred thousand.
So my roach troubles aren’t all that historic. But my plan to get down into the roach trenches was still on track. Gordon’s rule of thumb for a large city maintains that there are 10 roaches for every human. OK, about 6 million roaches in D.C. How am I to resist a cockroach corps that size? Furthermore, an especially hard-to-kill strain of cockroach was discovered in the House of Representatives, descendants of which are still maintained by the USDA for research. Of course, this merely confirms what we’ve known all along: Congress is full of the worst vermin anywhere.
Perhaps I could consolidate my power Michael Corleone-styleorder the murders of the heads of the Five Families (American, German, Smokeybrown, Oriental, and Brownbanded). Every female roach has the potential to be a matriarch of biblical proportions: Theoretically, one female could spawn 10 billion descendants within a year and a half, or five cockroach generations. Imagine the blattarian genealogy: Sara Roach begat Hal, Max, Maggie, Terre, Suzzy….You get the picture.
If I could just catch them! Countless are the times I’ve stood at the ready with my rolled-up newspaper, tensed for the kill, only to find the newsprint clean of insect innards after I strike, my intended victim out of sight. Can I be blamed? Relative to its body length, a cockroach can travel three times as fast as a cheetah. It can process and respond to a perceived threat within a half-second. How can I compete? If all else fails, Gordon’s text assures the reader that a cockroach tastes rather like shrimp.
To examine the roach mind, The Compleat Cockroach offers up a sampler of cockroach literature, starting with Archy, Don Marquis’ cockroach pal who slaved over columns for the New York Sun. There’s a roach discography, and a thorough study of roach movies, from horror classics like The Nest (“Roaches have never tasted flesh…Until now”) to the equally horrific Ricki Lake doing the Roach Dance in Hairspray.
The best part of the book, however, comes near the end: Gordon isn’t too attached to his subjects to tell his readers how to get rid of them. The suggestions included range from the surrealthe 1658 book The Theater of Insects suggests burying outside your house “the Guts of a Ram fresh killed and full of dung,” while an 1865 remedy involves writing a polite letter to your roach visitors, asking that they kindly bother someone elseto the hard, fast, and practical. Gordon rates the roach traps and baits on the market, offering chemical-free alternatives as well, and he dispenses the vital housekeeping advice that will make your dwelling less attractive to the roach in the real-estate market.
I haven’t seen a crawling critter in days. But the battle isn’t over, I’m sure. They’re lying in wait, patient for the next tasty dish in my sink. I’ve got one weapon left. I’m hoping, praying it won’t come to this. The widespread belief that roaches will be left to crawl the earth after World War III is a myth. Sure, there were plenty of blattarian survivors of the blast at Hiroshima, but our nuclear weapons these days are 76 times more potent, more than enough to wipe out the cockroach population. Though if there is one enterprising couple remaining, they could repopulate the earth rather quickly.
Apocalyptic in a different way, Furtive Fauna is an ominous study of the mostly unseen creatures that live on us. Not in our apartments, sharing our living space, but sharing our own skin, nourished by our own blood and carrying all sorts of diseases. I finally conquer my irrational cockroach anxiety only to be told about all these bugs that couldn’t care less for my leftover mac ‘n’ cheesemy scalp is just fine.
Furtive Fauna opens by describing how bubonic plague is carried by fleas. “But on closer examination,” author Roger Knutson asserts, “it becomes hard to blame the fleas.” What? Can I not reserve my contempt for any member of the insect world? When the fleas feed on rats with the plague, they become sick, and “are not fully responsible for their actions.” If any human happens to walk by, well, there’s your epidemic. Domed stadiums are perfect habitats for rats, writes Knutson. A visitor to the Super Bowl could be anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Talk about doomsday.
Knutson divides the bulk of his study into three equally creepy sections. First are the visitors: the critters who stop by to lap up a bead of sweat or, in some cases, a quick “blood meal.” Ticks will wait years for you to come along. It’s a grim story of tick meets host, tick sucks blood, tick lays eggs, tick dies. If you’re out in nature, Knutson warns, “it’s worth having a close friend look you over for ticks. Assure your friend that all primates groom each other.” (Truth be told, it would take a few minutes flipping through my organizer to find an acquaintance willing to take the time to look my body up and down for tiny parasitic bugs. But then again, it might be worth it to avoid the horrors of tsutsugamushi disease.)
Mosquitoes, chiggers, and flies fall into this category also. Female flies carry thousands of eggs at a time; when they need to get laid, don’t be around. Most fly larvaemaggotsdon’t have the eating machinery to get under your skin, but there are 100,000 types of flies, so many of them do. This has been my worst fear ever since I caught them feasting, in my sink, on a piece of leftover chicken back in college. If you develop significant new lumps on or around some warm, moist part of your anatomy, you should definitely seek medical assistance.
Next are the neighbors: They like our clothes, maybe our beds. Bedbugs have been around since the first cave-dwellers, furrowing into the piles of straw our ancestors used for bedding. Don’t forget our friends the fleas, the superheroes of bugdom; if they were our size, they could make Michael Jordan seem rooted to the earth. Fleas have the most elaborate sexual apparatus of any animal; they can copulate for four to five hours at a time. Body lice and dust mites are similarly disposedbut not to worry, we’re mostly safe if we shower daily and clean our clothes regularly.
Finally, the residents: Yes, they find homes on us. “You get head lice by going to school,” writes Knutson. Though you wouldn’t think it, they like little girls better than boys, and prefer a clean scalp. And ironically, pubic lice are least prodigious among this kind of parasite when it comes to reproduction, good news for those non-seafood lovers with a plate full of crabs. I would go on to describe some of the othersones that burrow under the surface of the skinbut I won’t, in hope that you keep a firm grip on this paper.
Knutson dispenses his bug wisdom with a healthy dose of scientific doubt, irresponsibly providing fodder for paranoids. What we really need, he writes, is “a Jane Goodall for mites,” to really observe them, follow their movements, before we can be certain of how to deal with them. Until then, he’s perfectly willing to deal in dubious generalizations, dishing scientific vagaries like, “The world needs flies….The cost of a biologically rich and functional world includes the potentially tiny risk that we might feed a fly.” The book is chock-full of “practically”s, “probably”s, and “maybe”sperfectly infuriating to the sizable segment of the population definitely grossed out by these things.
But think of the subject he attempts to deal with. Even as we travel the surface of the earth, marveling at urban landscapes or the natural majesty of a mountain range, forest, or desert, there is a whole class of creatures who view us in exactly the same way. A body louse may have to traverse a jungle of hair, barely surviving a strenuous trek across a desolate landscape down the back of your arm, hanging on for dear life during each flood of sweat that comes with the morning jog.
There’s a whole civilization in there. What are we to do? Am I to walk around every day, terrified that a mite may be attacking my hair follicles? Carry around bug spray? Use lice shampoos every morning and take tick baths every night? What can I do? Hire a personal grooming assistant? Knutson fails to reassure his readers, leaving them with a creepy-crawly feeling of concern, and seeming quite smug about it. “Worry about things of greater consequence,” he comforts, “like what happened to the stock market yesterday, or whether there is any way to bring peace to the Middle East.” Oh, thanks. What good is that if I have hair fungi and face mites? CP