Book Review: The Unknown Knowns

Debut novel by Jeffery Rotter
Scribner, 2009, $25.00 
There is a revealing line toward the beginning of Jeffery Rotter’ first novel that states, “trying to describe water by what it does is kind of like telling a story by throwing a book at your wife.” And such is the humorous oddity one must come to expect of Jim Rath, the story’s narrator and protagonist. Most of the novel’s humor, like the previous quote, is born from Rath’s characteristic obsession with water and the aquatic ape theory of human evolution. While there are explicit and implicit social and political veins to The Unknown Knowns the novel succeeds due to some very singular characters, particularly the narrator. As a professional designer/constructer of diorama The Museum of The Aquatic Ape is Jim Rath’s ultimate artistic goal. An ambition first revealed to readers from the deck of a houseboat where he is being held under house arrest as a suspected terrorist. From that already strange place Rotter works with absurd situations toward something surreal. Thankfully though, the novel never quite wanders into implausibility. A reader can spend the entire novel laughing at the protagonist, then feel a bit ashamed that they ever made light of his plight.
The story is told primarily in first person, excepting occasional insertions from a fictional congressional hearing, through the well-crafted voice of the water loving Jim Rath. In this way, Rotter treats readers to a world in which something as mundane as a Hilton hotel pool can define a character, and make readers sympathize with that character. And really, it is sympathy that is Rotter’s great triumph in The Unknown Knowns. Jim Rath does not seem at all likeable and it is a mark of the novel’s success that one cannot help but care for him by the time it ends. Even at points when the story’s construction is a bit obvious, though never distastefully predictable, the pathetic voice of the narrator will inspire further reading. Rath is so intriguingly absurd, and convinced, that sometimes, despite all signs pointing toward the opposite, the novel seems to continue on just to see if he is actually right, and hope, at least a little, that he is.
The basic plot outline is that hairy, overweight, balding Jim Rath, as his life seems to be collapsing around him, believes he has found an incognito remnant of a once great race of aquatic humans, which he calls Nautikons. The subject of Rath’s ensuing obsession is a homeland security officer named Les Diaz. Rath follows Diaz from hotel pool to hotel pool around Colorado hoping to prove his theory correct. Comic books, homeland security, pools, and people all get thrown under the bus in the process. Throw under the bus for the purposes of satire, and to demonstrate the sadness of a ruthless world where absurd delusions can be the only motivating force for living. Rath and Diaz are both in the midst of lives which seem to be disintegrating. Broken relationships, employment problems, and social issues are simply the fodder for their larger derangements which only further their isolation. Sad certainly, juxtaposed enough by humor though to keep it from morbid bleakness.
The novel’s title, The Unknown Knowns, is itself a derangement, and like most of the derangements within the front cover, a comic one. The reference is to a Donald Rumsfeld quote that serves as the novel’s epigraph. Rotter gives homeland security a minor pummeling, but apart from maybe staunch conservatives nearly every reader will get at least a chuckle out of the implicit comparison between Bush administration security and the aquatic ape theory of evolution. Yet rather than getting bogged down with political ambition Rotter’s prose is gentle enough to allow for light reading. 
At fewer than three hundred pages and with a nearly conversational tone The Unknown Knowns can be read quickly and enjoyed. Unlikely to incite deep thought after a reading, the story of Jim Rath, along with his visions of the under-water human world of Nautika (a somewhat adolescently sexualized world built with comic book images and adult vocabulary), will impress enough to be recalled anytime one finds themselves in a grossly warm public pool or staring at the ocean and suddenly wondering what it might be like to have gills.
The Unknown Knows sympathizes with a downtrodden character and the t delusions that keep him going. Readers will laugh at Jim Rath, because it is hard not to, and then feel bad about it, and chuckle again. It is sympathy with the absurd that makes this novel shine. It is not greatly philosophical or political and the prose and construction are not as polished as they might be, but The Unknown Knowns has enough fine parts that may be portent of greatness in Jeffrey Rotter’s future.
He was asked by publisher Simon and Schuster for an eight word summary of his life. The Brooklyn based author said “I am trying to get back to sleep”. The literary world should hope that is not the case. If the Unknown Knowns is only the beginning of his ascent and not the summit then the future is likely bright for Jeffrey Rotter.