August 15, 2008

“Pharmakon” by Dirk Wittenborn

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

Dirk Wittenborn is the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground, the 1960s band that didn’t sell many records but was famous in certain circles because almost every kid who bought a Velvet Underground record started a band.

In the early 1980s, Wittenborn published “Zoe,” a smart, funny, hip tale of a young model navigating her way through the starry glamour of New York City. It didn’t sell many copies, but several Wittenborn fans I knew became professional writers.

Weirdly, there is nothing in the publicity materials for “Pharmakon,” his new novel, that acknowledges “Zoe” or his first novel, “Eclipse.” Instead he is promoted as “the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary ‘Born Rich’ and the author of ‘Fierce People,’ for which he wrote the screenplay.”

OK, Wittenborn may be a producer and screenwriter now, but “Pharmakon” (Viking, 403 pp., $25.95) proves his fans were right about him as a novelist — he’s first-rate, even if he hasn’t been working at his craft much in the past three decades.

“Pharmakon” is smarter and funnier than “Zoe” and much broader in its scope, doing for the United States and pharmaceutical drugs what “Zoe” did for New York City and recreational drugs.

In the book, William Friedrich, a 1950s Yale professor of psychology, discovers a drug that appears to be the mother of all anti-depressants. Called “The Way Home,” the drug is culled from a plant indigenous to New Guinea, and it is reported to be the secret to the happiness of an obscure tribe of cannibals.

Before this discovery can be properly distilled and developed, and thereby make Dr. Friedrich as rich and famous as he desires, one of his test subjects runs amok and commits murder, and the drug never makes it onto the market.

From here the book becomes a family drama that covers nearly half a century of medicine, pharmacology, psychology and nearly every neurosis you can imagine, all told through the knowing voice of Zach, Friedrich’s youngest son who becomes a writer.

Zach has two brothers, one of whom dies, and two sisters. His siblings each have a strong, startlingly unique personality, and a talent for aggravating their father.

“Governments hire me to think about their [expletive] problems,” Zach’s father complains to him. “You’d think one of my children would listen to me when I give them advice.” Dr. Friedrich also likes to say, “We are complicated creatures.”

And drugs in this book — and there are more drugs per page here than in a Kurt Cobain biography — only serve as a temporary reprieve from the inescapable madness of life, whether the drugs are pharmaceutical or recreational.

“There had been no miracle cures. Wonder drugs for the mind came and went out of style like the hemlines of ladies’ skirts and the width of men’s ties. Ultimately, they were remembered as ill advised as last year’s fashions.”

As a footnote, I have to point out that Wittenborn’s father was, like William Friedrich, a professor of psychology at Yale in the 1950s and, again like William Friedrich, had a troubled patient who composed a death list that included the professor. I don’t know how much of the rest of Wittenborn’s story is true in the literal sense, but it all rings true in the literary sense.