American Culture

Book about happy drugs will make readers happy—Review: Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn

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pharmakon-cover72Dirk Wittenborn’s exploration of the drug culture—not the flashy counter-culture of the 1960s but the mainstream medicate-every-problem culture that arose in the 1980s—is at once a biting indictment of social values and a touching portrait of an unfulfilled family.

Wittenborn’s Pharmakon manages to do all this and more.

The story begins at the crossroads where pharmacology first meets psychology amidst the crisp idealism of Eisenhower-era America. The nation, reveling in postwar peace and prosperity, promises potentiality—a potentiality that whitewashes the individual melancholy of the Friedrich family. Yale psychology professor William Friedrich, nagged by the fact that his personal potential hasn’t yet blossomed, suddenly, he finds himself fast-tracked toward success when he and his research partner discover a drug that can make everybody happy.

But Wittenborn suggests that happiness can’t just be given away—and, unfortunately, it can’t even be earned.

The happiness drug doesn’t work out quite the way Friedrich hopes. (Think: insanity, murder, displaced family, lobotomies, paranoia—that sort of thing.) Even so, Pharmakon isn’t an experiment-gone-horribly-awry story (despite the fact that Freidrich’s experiment does, indeed, go horribly awry). Instead, it’s a poignant novel of a man’s quiet struggle with his own failings—professional and personal—in a world where everything else seems destined for success.

“All were qualified for greatness,” Wittenborn writes of Friedrich and his colleagues in the Yale psychology department, “but only one, maybe two, per decade would extract something from their minds so novel and wondrous and inarguable that even their competitors would have to acknowledge the superiority of another’s brain.”

The novel’s characters are quirky and tragic in a John Irving sort of way, and Friedrich’s struggles seem almost epic in nature even as they’re profoundly personal. The story spans two generations, stretching from the idealistic Eisenhower years into the strangely similar but strikingly different 1980s, where Reagan’s “morning again in America” ushered in a different kind of idealism.

Wittenborn chooses to tell the early parts of the book from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator, but the later part of the book is told through the first-person perspective of Friedrich’s late-in-life son, Zach. Wittenborn handles both narrative perspectives well.

What makes the book truly delightful to read, though, is Wittenborn’s writing itself. He weaves all sorts of great little observations and phrases into the narrative, which pop up like happy pills for readers. For instance, Zach’s description of his father’s small dressing room/closet is at once magnificent and familiar. “It was the grandest thing about the house we lived in then; it was a long, narrow, wondrous little right triangle of a room tucked under the stairs to the attic. It had a round window at one end that offered a view of nothing but sky, and it smelled of cedar and shoe polish and dust from parts of his life that were none of a small boy’s business.”

Such small, private, hidden places are tucked throughout Wittenborn’s novel—mostly in the private, hidden corners of his characters’ minds. The book doesn’t explore those private places so much as it shows the wistful sadness that comes from standing on the outside of those places and knowing you could go in if you wanted even though you’d never really find what you’re looking for.

Pharmakon, which is Greek for both “poison” and “cure,” has a good measure of both for its characters. The result, for readers, is nothing but good medicine.