Pharmakon, By Dirk Wittenborn

What happens when the Dream turns nightmare?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I was born because a man came to kill my father," begins Pharmakon, Dirk Wittenborn's follow-up to his critically lauded novel Fierce People. An audience-grabbing opener – and one close to the author's heart: in 1950, a former patient of his father, a psychologist, turned up in their yard, revolver in hand. The man didn't open fire, but Wittenborn uses this moment as the hub on which to spin a novel of extraordinary ambition.

His protagonist, Dr Will Friedrich, is a loosely fictionalised version of his father: a neuropsychopharmacologist, Yale professor and family man. In the early 1950s, Will is living a struggling, self-conscious variation on the American dream. This cross-generational comic opus follows the chain of events sparked by Will's discovery of a plant-based panacea for all types of depression. Trialling the drug with volunteers, he finds his perfect guinea pig in Casper, a geeky prodigy and social outcast who, wrongly, blames himself for the death of a girl. When things go wrong, a tragic ripple effect washes over the Friedrichs for decades to come.

Wittenborn has a perfect eye and ear for American tribes. Yale emerges as a hothouse of talents, egos and ambition, while the post-war malaise in the picket-fenced suburbs is neatly dissected; the middle-classes smile through dinner parties, all the time rattling with anti-depressants like Tic-Tac boxes in twin-sets. In these wit-hungry times, Wittenborn's flair for deceptively easy patter is a welcome addition to fiction writing. His freewheeling prose style zips off the page like a Buick down a boulevard, fuelled on references to popular culture and linguistic fads. Yet a warmth prevails, with believable and affecting relationships established.

The alleviation provided by medication is scrutinised with a consistent intelligence that is also creative and funny. There must be a point when most physicians conclude that these humpty-dumpty drugs simply can't put people back together again. Or, as Will puts it: "If only he could prescribe Nora's touch, the gentle pressure of a hand on one's back, life would be different for the Caspers of this world." Contact and kindness, one might say, can provide the perfect high.