Triptych image: Gail Wight, “Stomach,” 2009.
ONE CAN EASILY COLLATE a list of fun facts from Mary Roach’s latest book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Here are a few: When you smell something delicious, your mouth does not water. A worm or any living creature that you might swallow will be unable to bite you back from inside your stomach. Elvis Presley almost certainly died from straining against a compacted stool in his megacolon.
But reading Roach for fun facts misses the point of the journey. In best sellers such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Roach cemented her winning formula: be passionately curious, find experts to explain what you don’t understand, digest completely what they tell you, and, most importantly, be an extremely entertaining person and inject elegant dry humor wherever you can as you lay out your subject for the world.
Gulp does not deal much with cooking or with food in the pre-eaten state. The food facts we glean are minor. For instance, it happens that we buy variety kibble packets for our cats because we like variety, not because they do. We also learn that eating organ meat is one of the few macho activities that is actually good for you. But mostly and delightfully, Roach in essence is like an eight-year-old who hasn’t yet learned (or doesn’t much care) that what rivets her is unacceptable in polite society. She explains the situation this way: “Authors have profiled the brain, the heart, the eyes, the skin, the penis and the female geography, even the hair, but never the gut. The pie hole and the feed chute are mine.”
To the job, Roach brings a good-natured and (I dare say) feminine empathy absent from most science writing. Describing the career of Erika Silletti, a digestive scientist with a specialty in saliva, Roach asks us to imagine the societal response to a woman with such a calling: “She endures the […] snipes and quizzical silences of people who can’t understand why anyone would want to do such a thing for a living; the disappointment of parents who had looked forward to bragging about their child’s career in surgery or neuroscience; the second dates that never materialize.” Roach also manages to remain polite and still say whatever she wants: of a male researcher she writes, “I don’t want to use the word elfin, in case it seems belittling, but it did come to mind.”
Through her amusing asides, Roach takes us inside her sensibility (part Katharine Hepburn, part Nora Ephron) and binds us to her emotionally. For instance, in a chapter called “Up Theirs,” she travels to Avenal prison in central California to find out how it feels and what happens to the rectum when large objects (such as batteries, bags of tobacco, and SIM cards) are placed inside of it for smuggling purposes. There she will interview a prisoner with extensive knowledge of what is known as “the prison wallet.” As she arrives at the male–only facility, she interrupts the narrative with an aside that will tickle most female readers over the age of 40. Entering the premises with her male escort, Roach notices that “a few inmates glance over as we cross the prison yard, but most ignore us. I am really, I think to myself, getting old.” Later, when she sits down to speak with the convicted murderer, she explains to him the rectal stretch receptor and the defecation reflex before asking him, “Are you always having to fight to hold it in?” At the same time, she tells us, “I have an awareness that I must seem like an unusual person.”
Roach’s description of his response is also wonderful: “Rodriguez looks at the ceiling, as though searching for the right phrasing, or beseeching God to intervene. ‘It finds its spot,’ he finally says.”
Many of her sentences would make excellent first lines in a short-story contest: “And on it went, until Montoya de Hernandez and her stalwart anus made their way to the highest court of the land,” she writes. There’s also: “Michael Levitt did not set out to make his mark on the world by parsing the secrets of noxious flatus.”
Roach devotes one chapter to the strange story of William Beaumont, a 19th-century surgeon who studied the digestive system of Alexis St. Martin, a manual laborer with the bad luck of being accidentally shot in such a way that a portion of his stomach could be viewed through the wound. Beaumont made his name and devoted a decade to observing the behavior of St. Martin’s gastric juices. As part of his research, the good doctor placed his tongue on “the mucous coat of the stomach” to find that “no acid taste can be perceived.” In this chapter Roach shows more interest in the oddness of her characters’ behaviors and their relationship than she does in whatever science was learned therein (not much). And that is exactly what makes her the country’s greatest popular science writer.