Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pharmakon-Dirk Wittenborn

Dirk Wittenborn
Viking, Aug 2008, $25.95
ISBN: 0670019429

In 1952, Yale University psychopharmacologist Dr. Will Friedrich and psychiatrist Dr. Bunny Winton conduct experiments on volunteer students using a mood enhancer drug that comes from a new Guinea leaf used locally by witch doctors in rituals. Will gives a dose to troubled undergrad Casper Gedsic. The freshman goes on a murdering rampage.

Years after the incident Will still carries deep regret and mountains of guilt. He also does not hide his disappointment in his four “unprofessional” offspring as they fail to meet his standards of acceptable vocations. The youngest Zach has become an addict more than a writer; Fiona becomes a painter, Lucy is an aid worker; and the great hope Willy proves the most inadequate when he leaves acceptable pre-law to study art.

Zach narrates the historical tale of a dysfunctional family whose patriarch has “sock moments” in which he seems so deep in thought he appears comatose. The story line is at its best when the focus is on the experiment and its aftermath especially the impact on the participants. When the plot switches to the Friedrich children, their woes seem mundane compared to the guilt suffered by their father, who has not been able to find a defense mechanism to psychologically adapt to what he wrought. Still fans of family dramas will appreciate this look at the degrees of affect of one tragic incident.

Harriet Klausner

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