Pharmakon, By Dirk Wittenborn

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The Independent Culture

Dr William T Friedrich is a neuropsychopharmacologist. It is a miserable winter for the chestnut-haired 33-year-old: with four kids, $87 left in his bank account and only a week to go before Christmas, he drowns his self-absorption with beer. One day, however, he discovers happiness in a plant – or believes he does – and distils it into an antidepressant that he and colleagues test on rats.

This is 1950s America, where the craze for curing craziness has taken hold; a world in which happiness can be bought over the counter. But things go awry and, rather than endowing a new lease of life, Friedrich's drug leads to even further pottiness, and some untimely deaths.

Although the plot runs helter-skelter, often sliding off course like the wayward trajectories of his unstable characters, Dirk Wittenborn's prose is at times deliciously funny. Friedrich is apparently based on his own father, which lends veracity to his writing. He does struggle to keep control of the material but, thanks to the exuberance and wry intelligence of the writing, Pharmakon provides a rush of good feeling to read – a good book really can be great medicine.