There's a schizophrenia at the heart of Dirk Wittenborn's new novel. Perhaps that's by design; Pharmakon's deeply troubled cast of characters all have some relationship to mental illness, whether as patients, doctors, or the beneficiaries of pharmaceutical profiteering. But it takes a genius, or at least a steady, fearless hand, to pull a personality switcheroo after involving readers deeply in a particular story and narrative style. Wittenborn is good enough to pull it off once, but not twice. His promising novel collapses badly in its final 50 pages, betraying the fine writing and sharp character work that comes before.
Pharmakon begins with the story of William Friedrich, a Yale psychologist mired in the middle of the tenure track and oppressed by his contempt for middle-class family and professional mores. When an alluring colleague mentions a fermented plant extract that remote tribespeople take to relieve grief and restore happiness, he starts research on the compound. But he can't resist bringing a pathetic undergraduate named Casper into his study, and eventually something—either his own psychosis or withdrawal from the drug—causes Casper to snap and go on a killing spree. In the second section of the novel, Friedrich's son Zach, born after the tragedies, narrates his childhood's strange symbiosis with the institutionalized Casper. The final chapters jumps forward to the '90s and back into omniscient narration, as the son now known as Z, a heroin-addicted celebrity, tries to come to terms with his family's dysfunction.
Wittenborn is fond of magical-realist touches, like the flock of parrots that inexplicably roosts in Friedrich's front yard. But his best moments come from his feel for the '50s, a sense of impending, uncontrollable change that leaves his protagonists adrift in a world that's passing away before their eyes. He manages to carry that insight forward to the squeeze of the early '60s, as the comfortable class of intellectual elites is about to be shoved from the stage by rampaging youth. But when he tries to connect the dots to the aftermath of the decadent '80s, he's out of his element. The ugly artificiality of the "Z" section does such damage that a brief epilogue back in Friedrich's perspective can't pick up the pieces. Even if his characters can't stop their lives from ending up in shambles, Wittenborn shouldn't consign his book to the same fate.