THE TELLING ROOM: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti. The Dial Press, 349 pp., $27.
Michael Paterniti lost his head over a piece of cheese. It was not just any cheese, mind you: This was an exquisite, soulful, handcrafted hunk aged in olive oil and made from the milk of sheep who grazed on chamomile and sage in a tiny Spanish town. Paterniti first discovered it in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was finishing a master of fine arts degree in the early '90s and making a few extra bucks proofreading a newsletter for the famed Zingerman's deli.
A few years passed. Paterniti became a successful, footloose magazine journalist and a father. He wrote a book, "Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain." Then an old file turned up a yellowed Zingerman's newsletter, and an obsession began, one that would consume him for a more than a decade.
In "The Telling Room," Paterniti spins out one of the most extravagant nonfiction narratives of the season. I should say right off that his style -- preposterously self- indulgent, self-conscious, punning and way, way too playful -- is usually not my thing. Paterniti tested the patience of his editors, missing deadline after deadline, and he will test yours, too -- all over a piece of cheese.
Go with it. Yes, "The Telling Room" is about a cheese, Páramo de Guzmán, but it is also a book about the way Americans live now, what we eat and how our food is produced (farmers market fetishists and artisanal eggheads, take note). It is about stories and their tellers, truth and lies, facts and illusions.
Paterniti's ostensible subject was how Páramo de Guzmán became a "foodie" obsession (its fans include Fidel Castro). Paterniti struck journalistic gold in his main character, an earthy, larger-than-life Spanish farmer and cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras. Burly and rugged, Molinos speaks in deep baritone registers. He discourses on the pleasures of digestion, and says things like "There's immeasurable glory in riding a tractor" and "You ask the wheat, Is it time? And the wheat says, Yes, friend, it's time. And then you know to begin the harvest."
The farmer welcomed Paterniti and his family into his life and his town -- Guzmán, population 80, situated on the sun-baked plains of central Spain. In him, the writer saw an antidote to the discontents of modern life -- a charming, authentic man of the earth who talked in dizzying, digressive flourishes (Castilian anecdotes can go on for hours) and presented himself as a custodian of the old ways -- "webbed to the here and now, sunk into it," Paterniti writes, "while I seemed to spend a great deal of time racing through airports, a processed cream-cheese bagel in hand, trying to reach the future."
When Paterniti arrives, Molinos is no longer making cheese, and is evasive on why he's stopped. There is dark talk about betrayal at the hands of his best friend, "who stole my soul," and a group of investors brought in to expand the business. Paterniti is torn; he reveres Molinos and delights in his company. "If I wasn't a journalist, he wouldn't have to be my subject -- that is, we'd never have to be anything but friends. If I wanted to be in his world, then I wouldn't have to stop and observe. I could just live it."
Herein lies the rub. Paterniti had a book to write -- he had to report it, not just live it -- and let's just say that the truth about Molinos, his cheese and his alleged betrayal is complex and messy. The purported villain of this tale -- the best friend -- is less dastardly than he appears, and Molinos, in turn, has spun stories to cover up his own flaws. Paterniti learns that while Molinos understood the poetry of cheese, the prose of increased production and marketing evaded him.
In Castile, "a telling room" is a gathering place where stories are told. To understand Molinos and his cheese obsession, Paterniti makes his way through the web of tall tales and gets to the bottom of the mystery. But Molinos is not diminished by Paterniti's revelations; he is only made more human. We all tell stories, Paterniti suggests, however outlandish, to construct our very selves.