BOOK REVIEW: The nerd is rich, appealing, yet clueless

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 14, 2013 

  • 'THE UNKNOWNS'

    by Gabriel Roth; Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown & Co. ($25)

If only all social misfits were as stealthily charming as Eric Muller, the nerdy narrator of Gabriel Roth's sparkling debut novel, "The Unknowns." If Eric means to make himself sound unappealing to the reader, he fails miserably in his mission. Who could resist the kind of tech-oriented guy who calculates his exact reasons for arriving at a party at 10:32 p.m., because at that relatively early stage "it's possible to imagine that this party will live up to the promise inherent in the notion of a party"? Or who would notice, a little later, that "the population has increased, but not to the Malthusian degree it would take to make the party memorable"?

Eric has valuable skills, but they are not social ones. At a precocious age he helped to create a dot-com startup, sold it to a larger company and became a millionaire. He has outshone his father, who was too busy starting a computerized soda company when Eric was in high school to pay for his son's college tuition. "Just leave my name off entirely," this dad advised his son about the application. "Where they have a space for father, write N/A. That stands for not applicable. Just write that." Years later, Dad would like to let bygones be bygones and invite Eric - who never did get a college education - to be a venture capitalist and finance his latest bad idea.

Roth's remarkably funny, tender book is much more than one code-writing kid's success story. As its title indicates, "The Unknowns" is about how Eric grows up trying to fathom those things he doesn't naturally understand. Among them: girls, courtship, sex, the family unit, how to pursue the truth using nonscientific methods and how to make small talk. He's especially terrible when it comes to that last one. "How's it going, Eric?" another guy once asked him. "Not much," Eric replies. As he confides to the reader, "I always get the easy ones wrong."

At the party that opens the novel, Eric meets the right girl, a reporter named Maya. But, being Eric, he takes Ecstasy, goes home with the wrong girl, Lauren, and finds himself having blessedly unselfconscious sex with her. "The part of my brain that compares whatever's going on in real life to whatever might simultaneously be going on in some parallel universe has shut up," he tells himself happily. Unfortunately, the brain area that governs gaffes has closed down, too. And he winds up telling Lauren that he never makes love without thinking, "I love you, Mom" at the climactic moment.

Roth writes in a gently self-mocking, utterly disarming style that gives "The Unknowns" an unusual type of tension. As Eric describes his way of calculating his path through everyday situations, the reader can both enjoy his acumen and wish that he knew better. This whole book is a testament to Eric's early, all-too-understandable descriptions of his state of being as "stretched across the gulf between my life's twin goals: experiencing uncompromised happiness and not being a loser."

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