Pharmakon

By DIRK WITTENBORN

I was born because a man came to kill my father. That’s the opening sentence in Pharmakon, Dirk Wittenborn’s novel about a family buffeted by tragedy, psychology, and pharmacy. It’s an engaging opening to a saga that never quite finds its way through the author’s dense plotting and habit of “telling not showing.” Nonetheless, that opening line propels the reader through the story of the Friedrich family from the 1950s to the 1990s. Everything spirals outward from the moment troubled student and psychology guinea pig Casper Gedsic shows up at the Friedrich household with murder in his eyes. Casper is upset because Dr. William Friedrich, a Yale professor, has put him on an experimental “happiness drug” he hopes will send patients into states of chemical bliss. Instead, Casper cracks and goes on a rampage. Fast-forwarding several years, Pharmakon picks up with Zach, the youngest son of the Friedrich brood, who details the busy and troubled life of a family ruled by a distracted patriarch and a mother suffering from severe depression in the wake of tragedy. Zach, along with his brother and sisters, is “overdosed with family,” and so, too, might be readers as they find themselves tangled in a novel that bears similarities to early John Irving and his cavalcade of zany characters. Wittenborn is at his best in the scenes where Dr. Friedrich is convinced his “synthetic joy” will cure postwar America of its unhappiness, all the time unaware that the saddest family is his own.

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