The taste of the cheeseburger lingered in my mouth. Not the ketchup or the onion or even the “world famous” curly fries of the Elizabethtown Diner, just the red meat. I’d asked for it well done; it came rare—but I never send food back. It’s bad form, as far as I’m concerned. Fate delivered a rare cheeseburger, so I downed it. Now, as the car was coasting, and as my foot was dangling, I was glad for the taste of rare meat in my mouth. It tasted of open spaces and grazing herds.

I should mention at the outset that author Mark Goldblatt is a Facebook friend of mine. However, I can honestly say that I didn’t receive a free review copy of The Unrequited. So make your own judgment as to whether or not this enthusiastic review is impartial.

Calvin Hooker, the narrator of the story, is a reporter for a supermarket tabloid headquartered in New York City. He’s not proud of the work, but he does it as well as he can, not agonizing over what the editors and headline writers do with it afterwards. He hasn’t been in a relationship for a year and a half, and sometimes gets weepy thinking about his ex-girlfriend’s cats, to which he just lost visitation rights.

In other words, Hooker is not an alpha male. Certainly a beta, maybe a gamma. A central clue to the meaning of this book is that pretty much all the guys here are betas. The one actually forceful man in the story (aside from one who’s just crazy) is the character Hooker is sent up to Elizabethtown, NY to interview. Daniel Lockett has just completed a prison term for rape and the accidental murder of a baby. The great irony is that Daniel actually emasculated himself with an improvised knife while incarcerated.

The most powerful character for most of the story, in fact, is Jewel Parsons, a reporter for a rival tabloid who happens to be a woman of extraordinary beauty. Before sending him out, Hooker’s editor shows him Jewel’s picture, and tells him the only way he can beat her to this story is to make up his mind from the start that he will never get this woman into bed.

Nevertheless, Hooker and Jewel form an uneasy alliance, agreeing that they have better prospects working together. But is Jewel manipulating him, taking advantage of his desire and compliance, as she does almost unconsciously with every man she meets? And what is Daniel hiding? Both of them sense that the full story of his crime has not been told. If he didn’t commit the rape and killing, who did? And why would the rape victim accuse him, letting the real murderer of her child go free?

The answers are deep and complex, and digging for them means searching out a larger mystery – the mystery of how men and women relate to one another in a world where no one seems to know what a man or a woman is.

A grim story, certainly, but not as grim as my synopsis sounds. Hooker has a self-deprecating wit and the story is actually a tragicomedy, where the constant joke is on clueless men who keep trying to give women what they say they want, rather than what they really want and won’t say.

Elegantly written, The Unrequited is as much a modern comedy of manners as a mystery novel. I recommend it highly, for those who can bear with some (unusually well-written and lyrical) sex, and violence and rough language.

Lars Walker is the author of several fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book, Hailstone Mountain.