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But There Are Also Unknown Unknowns

Gabriel Roth’s restaurant reviews, written between 2003 and 2006 for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, are as good as any I’ve ever read. They’re the kind of pieces you go to for the comic flourishes and surprising asides, not for tips on where to get sushi this evening. Here’s Roth on It’s-It, a West Coast ice cream treat:

There are four flavors of It’s-It available: vanilla, chocolate, mint, and, because we live in a debased era, cappuccino. (Bonus fact: the plural of It’s-It is They’re-Them.)

And here he is on the deli selections at Quizno’s:

The meats seem to have been cut from an actual animal rather than from a loaf made by smooshing together an entire herd in that giant trash-compactor room from Star Wars.

(He’s equally entertaining on mu shu pork and mayonnaise.)

I reviewed restaurants for five years in the late nineties and early whatever-they’re-calleds, and I know how easy it is to fall into the received language of food critics. Roth avoids the trap entirely. He explains his method on his Web site: “I don’t really know anything about food so I tried to compensate by spending more time thinking about it than most people would be able to tolerate.” As a result, he’s able to describe the matzo ball in matzo ball soup as resembling “an uncle in a chicken-flavored Turkish bath.” I first happened upon Roth’s reviews a couple of weeks ago and started immediately emailing them to friends.

Then, several days ago, at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, I picked up Roth’s debut novel, The Unknowns. I began reading it on the runway of the San Francisco airport; I finished it last night in Ann Arbor. The voice of the novel recalls, at times, the voice of the reviews: Roth’s narrator, Eric Muller, spends more time thinking about “the girlfriend problem” than most people would be able to tolerate. But the novel also takes on the Iraq War buildup, online data collection, repressed memories, and a host of other concerns. It’s a fabulous book: funny and unsettling and nearly impossible to put down.

I spent much of today in a place I’ll call Roth Land, a virtual realm of radio interviews, book reviews, and Twitter feeds. (Do you ever finish a book and feel that you’re not quite ready for the experience to end, so you prolong it by following every online rabbit-hole you can find? That was me, all afternoon.) I read Roth’s Tweets on the Zimmerman verdict: “basically it’s fucked up that different states get to make their own laws about stuff”; “i mean, when it comes to something like what size soda you can buy, go to town, but not with important stuff like when you can kill someone.” I clicked through his author site (with this glint of “Latest News”: “I’ll be reading at Borders in San Luis Obispo next Wednesday, July 12 2009, at 6 p.m. If you happen to live in the Central Coast area, and have access to a time machine, come on down!”). I laughed at (well, with) his book trailer.

Spending so much time with an author, even one whose sensibility feels like a match for your own, can be disorienting. (The mix of tones in the preceding paragraph is telling. The Zimmerman verdict is a disgrace; the book trailer is clever and endearing. In The Unknowns, Roth includes jokes that demand to be read out loud: a clueless father mistakes “Martin Luther King Junior High School” for a junior high; a dim-bulb student insists “that trees are not alive b/c they don’t walk around.” The author also includes a harrowing account of sexual abuse.) I left Roth Land, charmed by the copyediting debates and the famous-person Twitter-banter (Judith Shulevitz! Wesley Stace!), and returned to more local concerns: putting away the suitcases, begging my daughter to pick up her Legos. If I could’ve bribed her with a chocolate It’s-It, I would’ve gladly done so.