A Closer Look at: Vermin

UNLESS YOU'VE SPENT a few minutes studying that skittering insect you squashed in the bathtub the other night while considering whether it's time to move out, you probably haven't thought a lot about cockroach physiology. Or much else about the cockroach, for that matter. Fortunately, Richard Schweid, author of The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore (Four Walls Eight Windows) has done that job for you with an unnervingly encyclopedic tome on one of evolution's oft-overlooked miracles.

Much as he did a decade ago in his work Hot Peppers, Schweid sews together scientific writing, literary passages, history, and tidbits of popular culture in such a way that you find yourself learning more about a subject than you thought you wanted--or could bear--to know. Indeed, Schweid has compiled a host of wonderfully colorful facts and trivia that might be used to entertain guests at dinner parties. For example: Roaches are the oldest insect on record and they preceded dinosaurs by 150 million years; if they were scaled to human size, they'd scurry across your kitchen floor at 200 miles per hour; and they are well-known to chew the eyelashes off babies and to climb into human ears, which is reportedly quite painful and even more terrifying.

Schweid presents this information with a distinctive brand of socially conscious journalism. Take the way he presents the research pumped out by the surprising number of academics who dedicate their lives to coming up with new ways to destroy the very objects of their study. Schweid points out that in New York, cockroach infestations found in privately held apartment complexes are finally on the wane. This thanks to the invention of a gel-based bait that proves disastrous to a roach's foregut but is nontoxic enough to be placed safely next to the dishes. Those who live in public housing, however, have yet to witness such results, since the New York Housing Authority, Schweid says, "has so far refused to switch to the gel." Schweid next connects this trend to the preponderance of cockroach-induced asthma among children in public housing.

Rather than stew in outrage, though, Schweid soon moves on to a vivid description of an outing with a born-again Christian exterminator working for the NYHA; a discussion of several homespun remedies for roach habitation; and a philosophical meditation on why we want to kill the cockroach in the first place. Here, Schweid draws on the writings of anthropologist Jay Melching, who argues that it's mostly only a Eurocentric culture obsessed with "the positive terms (clean, light, center) that stand in contrast with the cockroach. In contrast, African Americans and others find the cockroach an attractive icon precisely because he inverts the normal order of American culture [!]."

To be sure, nothing is left out. In fact, you could argue that too much is put in. I'm sure Missy Williams, a student at Vanderbilt University who spent time bringing Schweid up to speed on the intricacies of cockroach anatomy, was surprised to read that Schweid thought "she was lovely, tall with short blond hair, long legs, and flawless skin, wearing the tiniest of turquoise minidresses with much more of her exposed than covered." Schweid also starts most chapters with long stories taken from his life, which revolve around subjects such as the deplorable working conditions faced by women in a Mexican border town. These tangents can lead to serious head scratching, as they seemingly have nothing to do with cockroaches, and the segues used to get back on track seem severely forced. When there are segues at all.

Then again, after following this enterprising writer to the dank, infested recesses behind the walls, anything that takes place in daylight seems a relief.

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