With the smallest shift in marketing, Mary Roach could singlehandedly triple the rate of pleasure reading among teenage boys. She writes about exactly the things that fascinate them: outer space, human bodies and especially all the weird, smelly, slimy, loud, hilarious byproducts of said bodies. In her latest, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Roach follows the process of digestion from beginning to inglorious end. Though her subject matter is the stuff of sixth-grade humor, her approach is (slightly) more serious, and substantially more journalistic.
She begins on a dreamy note: “How lovely to picture one’s dinner making its way down a tranquil, winding waterway, digestion and excretion no more upsetting or off-putting than a cruise along the Rhine.” Alas, most of us don’t particularly like thinking about our food once we’ve eaten it. “The prevailing attitude,” she notes with regret, “is one of disgust.”
Roach wants us to get over it already. And she’s persuasive, thanks to her trademark blend of goofball humor and sincere devotion to her subject. She wants to know what makes us tick, physically and philosophically. While talking spit with scientist Erika Silletti, Roach acknowledges, “I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry.”
The woman clearly loves her job. She gets to interview people who spend their days classifying bad smells, testing dog food flavors, measuring the colons of eating-contest winners. She has a “favorite snake digestion expert.” It’s hard not to share her delight when she finds a rabbi to quote on the subject of whether human hair is kosher and it turns out his last name is “Blech.” Later, when she’s tracing the use of digestive enzymes (aka spit) in stain removal, she interviews “a chemist named Luis Spitz,” then “a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.” The giggling is almost audible through the page.
Roach also writes excellent footnotes, draws vivid if unorthodox comparisons (she likens a colonoscope to a bartender’s soda gun) and asks all the questions you’re too self-conscious to Google, plus others that have never occurred to you (can farts cure cancer?). Along the way she sneaks in sly critiques of bureaucracy, bigotry, animal cruelty and other less-than-noble human behavior. You may be grossed out, but you’ll also be impressed.