Written by on May 6, 2014

The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth

By now, I would have thought that the chance of coming up with a non-cliché male geek misfit character would be very slim. But Gabriel Roth has beaten the odds. His protagonist, Eric Muller, is real enough to walk off the page, and stays with you long after you’ve finished this book. Eric is a geek, but a very successful one: he’s sold his computer profiling program to a bigger company and made himself a Silicon Valley millionaire.

Roth structures the story in alternating chapters: the present, in San Francisco, then back to Eric’s formative years: designing a computer game on a Commodore 128 with his junior high school friend, Nicky Boont, and getting to know uber-nerd Bill Fleig, which changes his life forever.

Eric, like most teenaged boys, is obsessed with girls. But once he enters high school, where he changes classes, his math proclivities give him a systematic way of approaching the problem:

I began by gathering data. Accounting for overlaps, my seven classes plus homeroom contained forty-six distinct girls. I listened for their names during roll and wrote them in a notebook, along with a quick notation indicating something about their physical appearance to remind me who was who. Once I’d got the names I started pruning. I wasn’t picky. To the least desirable girls I applied a litmus test: Would I prefer to be involved with her or to graduate high school without ever acquiring a girlfriend? That knocked out seven and left Rita Bambrick, whose head looked like one of the Easter Island statues, on the borderline.

9780316223287_p0_v1_s260x420Despite growing up and becoming considerably more self-aware, Eric’s quantification of social and emotional issues continues, at least until he gets involved in a relationship with Maya. She has an issue from her past that’s so big it can’t be worked out mathematically. It’s an intensely satisfying reading experience to watch Eric rise to the occasion.

Though there are some very painful issues in this story, the humor keeps it from being overwhelmingly bleak. All of the characters, even the minor ones, are fully drawn — Eric’s delusional, manipulative father alone could populate another book. It has everything I look for in a novel, and I was truly sorry to turn the last page.

author photo: Melissa Stewart

Read more on fiction and Gabriel Roth.

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