Into the Bowels
with Mary Roach
If someone took a notion to ask author Mary Roach to perform, say, stomach surgery, she would probably also remove much of the large intestine, the gall bladder and at least one kidney, all with the excuse that it was just so interesting.
That’s the kind of crazy logic that holds together Roach’s newest book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” as it comfortably slides from a meditation on cat food tasters (“The average rating, I am gobsmacked to report, fell between ‘liked mildly’ and ‘neither like nor dislike’ “) to accounts of explosive colonoscopies, to a discourse on cow farts (they don’t), to a product that keeps flatulence from smelling, which somehow also manages to include the story of how the photograph of a friend’s 1980s band reemerged on a greeting card years later with the heading, “Greetings from the Dork Club.”
Like the perfect dinner guest full of entertaining conversation — or wait, given the subject, lets delay this until dinner is over — Roach rolls out one surprising story after another. She matches the dinner wit’s great timing with her impressive mastery of the comic footnote. Take a discussion of megacolons, a phenomenon caused by something called Hirschsprung’s disease. Hirschsprung’s robs the lower digestive tract of its ability to keep things moving, forcing the organ to distend to painful proportions. The megacolon of a man named J.W. grew so large that, upon seeing it at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Roach thinks, “It wears the same size jeans as me.” It left poor J.W. looking like “the bastard offspring of Humpty Dumpty and Olive Oyl,” she says.Roach tells us J.W. spent part of his life as “The Balloon Man” in a freak show exhibit in Philadelphia’s old Ninth & Arch Museum, alongside such oddities as the “Minnesota Wooly Baby.” Then this footnote: “Oddly, the exhibit chosen for billboarding on the building’s exterior was ‘Young Women Basketball Players.'”