Mary Roach’s books come marinated in bodily fluids and infused with noxious vapors; you feel like you should be wearing rubber gloves to turn the pages. She’s unflinchingly ready to explicitly describe things we’re inclined to be squeamish about, and in her latest book, “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War” — no less drenched in sordid secretions — it doesn’t take long for the going to get gory.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and nearby Johns Hopkins University, she reports from the front line of genital reconstruction surgery for injured soldiers. “Phalloplasty” has come a long way and surgeons have developed a passable “neopenis” fashioned from “inflatable rods,” but they are prone to rupture, hence the interest in penis transplant. In a “windowless horror movie of a room,” Roach observes a procedure performed on two cadavers with “the potential to restore the wholeness of a young man.”
Later, she recounts the pestilential effects on troops through history of the filth fly but its redeeming quality, in larval maggot form, as a wound cleaner — devouring decaying flesh like a minesweeper clearing a minefield. Medical maggots were FDA approved in 2007 (in case you’re wondering, they’re contained in a “cage dressing”), but there’s a reminder of “nature, red in tooth and claw” when entomologist George Peck coaxes three onto Roach’s index finger. Roach takes their writhing to be playful exuberance before Peck notes, “They do cannibalize.”
“Grunt” is her seventh book, including “Bonk,” “Spook” and “Gulp” (examining, respectively, sex, science’s take on the afterlife, and the digestive tract and its outputs). She has become a literary franchise. At her best, she travels a low road of morbid curiosity to arrive at something deeply human (everyone poops) and oddly elevating (her breakout 2003 hit “Stiff,” about cadavers, has much charm — a not-inconsiderable feat).
A onetime travel writer, Roach excels in capturing science’s “foreign country” aspect — roaming as a stranger in a strange land among its weird norms and novelties, grand monomaniacal passions, practitioners’ idiosyncrasies and obscure lexicon.
At Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, a “bio-engineered” crash-test dummy is under development for use in simulated rocket attacks to better understand the forces acting upon soldiers inside military vehicles under assault and to develop new safety features. To ensure it offers a realistic human stand-in, measurements are taken from that old analog stand-by — cadavers. Via video, Roach describes the danse macabre aboard a mock-up military rig as it is rocked by a battlefield caliber explosion: “Playing back the footage at 15 or 30 frames per second allows the researchers to step inside the half-second lifespan of the event…. First the boots flatten, their sides bulging noticeably. An index finger rises from where it was resting on a thigh, as though the cadaver were about to make a point. The lower legs extend and rise. The head comes down and the arms shoot out in the manner of a hurdler mid-leap.”
Mary Roach writes of the military’s “quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks.”
She writes exquisitely about the excruciating while also displaying supreme attunement to the oddness of the subculture she’s writing about. In “Grunt,” she’s concerned with the military’s “quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks.”
About those ducks: alongside other fellow travelers in our skies, they constitute a menace dubbed “birdstrike” (Roach delights in the military’s “signature clipped machismo”) that inflicts up to $80 million in damage each year on the nation’s military aircraft fleet and claims the occasional human life. Hence a 60-foot “chicken gun” that pelts jets with chicken carcasses to test their fortitude against the avian threat. The U.S. Air Force has a Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard team (yes, that would be BASH) whose work over the years has yielded a Bird Avoidance Model (BAM) that schedules flights to minimize the risk of bird collision and a signal planes can emit to warn birds of their presence earlier. “Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking collide with large, abiding research budgets,” writes Roach.
This is not to say funding comes without strings. At the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center near Boston, Roach encounters perhaps the hardest-working fashion designers and textile technologists in the business with a client pickier than the most demanding runway diva.
Military apparel must withstand not only the abuses of the battlefield and flaying effects of “field laundry,” but scale across disparate body types without busting budgets. In its multi-functionality — wicking away viscous oil while retarding flame — “the modern military uniform is less an outfit than a system,” writes Roach. But though the garments look strictly utilitarian next to the strutting peacock-in-heat officer-class costumes of historical armies, they must also retain a modicum of chic. “With protective gear especially,” remarks senior Army fashion designer Annette LaFleur, “it’s key that you design something that’s kind of sleek and cool, because otherwise they’re not going to want to wear it.” Then there are the bespoke special orders: for the chilly sniper on extended stakeout — the single forefinger mitten.
Yet “Grunt” is not without its languors. A chapter on the history of shark repellent development (spurred by World War II aviators’ fears that ditching in the ocean meant they’d be shark bait) is thin gruel. At other times, some of the machinery behind Roach’s writing becomes creakily apparent.
When the subject matter is slim in the book’s reportage sections, Roach’s signature travelogue-style of recounting her personal journey of intellectual discovery as she digs up information can drag. A literary device in which she and others discuss something unseemly in a restaurant setting within earshot of other diners or the wait staff recurs enough times to feel rote.
There’s also a tension in “Grunt” between Roach’s effervescent tone and the subject matter. At Walter Reed, she visits with veterans who’ve been appallingly maimed. It’s heart-rending. After that, a chapter on the quest to develop a superior stink bomb seems trivial.
“Grunt” is at times tremendously entertaining, wildly informative and vividly written, but as an examination of humans at war it feels small-bore.
Phillips is a writer living in Portland, Ore.
W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $26.95