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BOOK REVIEW

A hallucinogenic, homicidal tale

Pharmakon A Novel Dirk Wittenborn Viking: 404 pp., $25.95

August 24, 2008|Adam Langer | Adam Langer is the author of the novels "Crossing California," "The Washington Story" and, most recently, "Ellington Boulevard."

Nearly ALL the depressed patients in Drs. Will Friedrich and Bunny Winton's 1952 drug trial at Yale University display significant progress after consuming a drug derived from a hallucinogen traditionally used by a cannibal tribe in New Guinea.

An acrophobic young man gains enough self-confidence to acquire a pilot's license; a nurse returns to college; and, most significant, the brilliant but suicidal, unkempt and painfully awkward 17-year-old Casper Gedsic, in a transformation worthy of "Flowers for Algernon," loses his stutter and becomes an extremely adept, if manipulative, social climber. But shortly after the study ends, Gedsic goes on a homicidal rampage that leaves two dead, and the fatally ambitious Will and his young family never fully recover from the tragedy. Something similar may be said of "Pharmakon," Dirk Wittenborn's ambitious novel of family and pharmacology, which struggles to regain its balance and clarity once it shifts attention from the story of the drug trial to its aftermath.

It's fairly easy to think of "Pharmakon" as two novels, a sort of "Crimes and Misdemeanors" about mental illness -- on one hand, a fitfully gripping, psychological thriller about the short-term human costs of Will Friedrich's ambitions; on the other, a thoughtful, if meandering, family saga, much of it narrated by the youngest Friedrich, Zach, about the long-term effect of Will Friedrich's actions and inaction.

The more viscerally effective portion is the drug-trial story. As Zach chronicles his father's quest for wealth and renown in New Haven, Conn., Wittenborn does rely too often on cliches (brains fermenting in jars are described as being either "dark as coal" or "pink and delectable as a baby's bottom"); Wittenborn's metaphors can be both hackneyed and repetitive -- one character keeps his "nose . . . to the grindstone"; another keeps his "brain to the grindstone." And Wittenborn occasionally manifests symptoms of metaphor overdose: "Numbers bubbled up within him with the carbonated fizz of a shaken-up bottle of pop, igniting inside his head with a silent flash, like fireworks exploding underwater."

But one feels inclined to forgive these flaws because the story here is truly fascinating; one senses that the author was so taken by its power that he partially neglected the telling of it. When he focuses on the task, Wittenborn's writing is well-observed and concise. As both Will and Casper attempt to ingratiate themselves into East Coast society, Wittenborn astutely addresses themes that he considered in the novel and film "Fierce People," which turned an anthropologist's eye on America's upper class. Casper's drug-induced personality shift, in which a seemingly harmless outcast finds acceptance when he becomes a dangerous narcissist, provides a familiar but witty class critique.

But after Casper's rampage leads Will, his wife, Nora, and their four children to pack up and move from New Haven to New Jersey, where Will gets a job teaching at Rutgers, the novel's pace and vitality flag regardless of the fact that the author covers much ground. The last 200-some pages take place over nearly 40 years, zigzagging through the struggles of each of the Friedrichs: Despite numerous successes, Will sinks further into depression and solipsism; Nora, thwarted from pursuing her own dreams, immerses herself in her husband's career; the Friedrich daughters struggle in their marriages; the older Friedrich boy finds elusive happiness when he accepts his own homosexuality; the younger son, Zach, embarks on a writing career, futilely searching for balance while abusing one substance after another.

Though the material here is rich, little of it approaches the effect of the earlier story. The discoveries that Zach makes about his family may shock him but not anyone who has read the first 200 pages of "Pharmakon." Yet what's both heartening and frustrating is that Wittenborn's writing becomes more graceful and heartfelt as the novel progresses. The florid prose nearly disappears; the characters become more nuanced. Wittenborn occasionally swings for a big statement and whiffs ("[the murder was] a tragic accident. But then, isn't that what all murders are?"). But when he assays smaller truths, he frequently connects.

It's risky to impute autobiographical motivations to a novelist, but one may speculate that the material here is better written yet less focused because of its resonances for Wittenborn, son of a prominent Yale and Rutgers psychologist who invented a psychiatric rating scale similar to the one Will Friedrich pioneered. In his acknowledgments, Wittenborn thanks his mother for "being so candid and generous with her memories of my father."

The difficulties of approaching autobiography could explain why Wittenborn's drug-trial story reads like well-constructed if occasionally overwrought fiction but his more believable family tale remains so murky and unresolved that the whole Caspar Gedsic saga eventually begins to seem like a hallucination dreamed up by Zach Friedrich to explain his dysfunctional family. One could guess that the author, uncertain whether to address his own story through memoir or fiction, concocted his own literary pharmakon, the complex Greek word signifying both a poison and its remedy, that provides Wittenborn's novel with its perhaps all-too-apt title.

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