Sometimes America is simply too big for its own good. It can make an epic out of an anecdote. If the Twentieth Century’s Blue Ribbon Kitsch Icon, Intellectual Division, had had his gray matter snipped out of his brainpan and carted cross-country 40-odd years later, and the country in question were Liechtenstein, you’d have to be naked and dragging the thing by its medulla with your teeth for anyone to write it up.
But the ritual of interstate flight has become so enshrined in the American imagination, it’s enough to make you wish the Kerouacs had stayed Quebecois. (The second 20 pages of On the Road will also suffice for that purpose.) The road trip can still repay public interestwitness the smash summer sex-romp film of that namebut it requires mouse-tonguing, snake-handling, and a gangly, Rumpelstiltskin-faced geek sniffing leopard-skin panties to inspire that interest in the first place. Not to piss in the canopic jar bearing Michael Paterniti’s literary-glossy aspirations into the afterlife of hardbound publication, but a pseudointellectual bachelor party featuring a rental car, a dull, reticent 84-year-old pathologist, and a few floating dendritic chunks, no matter their pedigree, just ain’t gonna cut it.
I skipped the first run of Driving Mr. Albert, when it appeared in Harper’s, thinking that if we all agree to ignore fulsome eructations of high concept, they’ll just waft off into the ether and the editors commissioning them will learn to shun such stunts. Well, the piece won the 1998 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. And when Paterniti turned up on the radio earlier this summer to plug the director’s cut and further confuse Diane Rehm by alleging that driving coast to coast is more, you know, spiritual if the junk in your trunk once crossed swords with the mind of God and turned time to Silly Putty, I figured I’d take one for the team.
The story goes like this: Five years after Paterniti and his lady love, Sara, meet cute in a Calvin-and-Susie-style snowball fight at the University of Michigan, they are living in Maine in a house with no cheer. She’s grinding out a book; he’s unemployed and rudderless. They’ve drifted apart. He decides to trace a tale he assumes to be an urban legend back to its source. He finds Dr. Thomas Harvey, who has been through three wives and several litters of kids and stepkids, flunked out of medicine, and recently weathered a stint as an extruder operator in a Lawrence, Kan., plastics plant that makes racks for greeting-card displays, and who now lives with his 60-something girlfriend in New Jersey, where he still has, in two glass cookie jars, parts of the brain he removed, with questionable authorization, during his autopsy of Albert Einstein, who died of an abdominal aneurysm in April 1955. Harvey wants to take portions of his brain holdings to Evelyn Einstein, Albert’s son’s adopted daughter, who just may be the direct offspring of the Great Brain himself, though that’s never cleared up. Paterniti offers to play chauffeur. Hi-jinks ensue. Harvey doesn’t give the brain morsels to Evelyn, instead opting to return them to Princeton Hospital, in whose employ he found himself in 1955. Paterniti returns to Sara. They marry and spawn.
The thing isn’t all bad. You’re bound to run across a few certified characters on the road, and Paterniti does just fine by a rabid Japanese collector of Einsteiniana and his imperious boss, who is revealed to have a heart of gold when he drops his gruff façade to sing a tender farewell to his colleagues’ favorite karaoke hostess when she breaks down in sobs the night before she returns to China. But the author encountered Kenji, Mr. Kobe, and Lily on a two-day research trip to Osaka, not the 11-day U.S. jaunt. That’s cheating.
America does offer Paterniti a few of the voluble, excitable types that motivate his livelier passages. There’s Harvey’s former roommate’s frisky Greek grandmother, who takes quite a shine to the old man. And the thin-skinned cocktail waitress who summons bouncers and starts spouting off about her law-school plans when Paterniti gives her a pop quiz on Einstein, which she perceives as an affront to her intelligence. And the Pakistani night clerk at the Santa Monica Days Inn:
“You say Einstein is a god,” says Joseph. “No, Jesus is a god. Einstein is dead, no? Jesus came back three days later, you understand, my friend? Einstein is a filthy man, you know, someone who had pets. You need to study Albert Einstein. Study first. Okay?…What can I say to you? Who say Einstein is a god?”
“There are people who think very highly of him,” I say.
Joseph’s mustache twitches, and then he bursts forth, “I am shocked myself! It’s terrible what you say! He’s a man, man! He’s a sidekick! He’s not God. He cannot give life. Jesus give life!” At this he reaches over the counter and puts his hand a few inches from my mouth, growling, “If I close your mouth and nose, you will die. Einstein cannot give…Jesus give life, you understand?”
But when Paterniti squanders an entire chapter on a side trip to a familiar folk-art tourist trap, complete with extensive quotes from the jerkwater docent’s canned patter; and when he devotes five pages to a visit with the once-scandalous, now-tiresome (oops!now-dead) William S. Burroughs, who, granted, was Harvey’s neighbor in Lawrence and who met the doctor once before at the behest of a documentary filmmaker; and when he makes a motif of a garden-variety televangelical Marilyn Manson foe, that’s not cheatingthat’s desperation.
And when Paterniti enters one of his pull-quote fugues and starts discoursing on the mind-bending import of the Brain (“As it will happen in this single day, we will live through four seasons. Which can occur if one drives long enough with Einstein’s brain in the trunk. Time bends, accelerates, and overlaps; it moves backward, vertically, then loops; simultaneity rules”), and when he waxes lyrical about the sun and the interstate (“The road is gold and mystical, running smack-dab along the geological middle of America, the seam where the West untethers from the East so that nothing, nothing…[blah, blah, blah]…the shadows lay purple over everything, fall in wondrous, warm-rain plagues…[blah, blah, blah]…this light and shadow, this rich, penniless air”), and when he describes a heavy snow as “nuclear-powered” just because Einstein is forever, ifby Paterniti’s own admissionrather tenuously, linked to the A-bomb, that’s not desperationthat’s idiocy.
Let’s face it. Einstein’s Eisenhower-era brain, fixed forever at the time of his death, is like David Lee Roth’s cock circa 1996: a formidable organ, perhaps, but its best years far, far behind it. Or far, far ahead of it. If sci-fi biotech actually develops to the point that Bill Joy looks more like John the Baptist than like Jim Jones, the cloning of Einstein’s brain may provide fodder for a respectable book. But there’s no chance it’ll be written by some writing-program showoff who fails to grasp that the theory of special relativity comes with numbers attached, that barring near-light-speed travel its description of your everyday experience of time is utterly unremarkable.
A mythic story deserves a mythic ending, but I didn’t get the one I’d hoped for. As the Writer, the Pathologist, and the Formaldehyded Brainbits pushed west, page after testily flipped page, I held out for the Great Oz to pop his head from behind his curtain and deliver the goods: “Why, anybody can have a brain, Michael. That’s a very mediocre commodity. What you need is an idea. Therefore, I award to you this contract for Candyman Taxicab: Making the Strip With Sammy Davis Jr.’s Good Eye.” CP