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Viking Flights of Fiction
Summer 2008
Cover image of Pharmakon
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Pharmakon

A Novel
Dirk Wittenborn

An epic novel about family secrets and the consequences of ambition

William Friedrich, an ambitious professor of psychology at Yale in 1952, has stumbled upon a drug that promises happiness—and that can make him a famous man. When his experiment goes awry, and a research subject commits murder, the consequences will haunt him and his family forever.

Pharmakon is an epic novel, an invocation of the quest for bliss, for love, for family, and all of the betrayals that follow. We follow the Friedrichs from the well-ordered suburban life of postwar America through the chaos and freedom of the counterculture, into the drug-fueled, media-crazed eighties and beyond. In William Friedrich, Wittenborn has defined the archetypal American patriarch: a miracle worker and source of strength to everyone except those he loves the most. Pharmakon is also a layered, thoughtful search behind the veil of psychopharmacology as we know it today—a tale not only of the consequences of research, but also of the complex personalities, appetites, and struggles that created it.

Honest, insightful, and ruefully funny, Pharmakon captures formative moments of the twentieth century, the quirks of an American family, and will enthrall fans of the novels of John Irving.

Dirk Wittenborn is a novelist and screenwriter whose books have been published in more than a dozen countries. He is the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary Born Rich and the coauthor and co-producer of The Lucky Ones, a feature film about American soldiers returning from Iraq. He lives in New York City.

I was born because a man came to kill my father. If he hadn't showed up with a gun in his pocket and bad thoughts in his head, I wouldn't exist, much less have a story to tell. This tragic footnote to my conception left me feeling as if I had three parents: a father, a mother, and a murderer.

My father suffered from strange and temporarily paralyzing attacks of catatonia that my family, with characteristic discretion, referred to as Dad's “Sock Moments.” You would walk past my parents' bedroom door on the way to breakfast or the bathroom and glimpse Dad sitting on his side of the bed, fully dressed, legs crossed, one shoe on, sock in hand, about to put on his other shoe. Perfectly normal, right? Trouble was, sometimes ten or twenty minutes would pass and you'd look in on him again and he'd still be sitting there, sock in hand, staring at the other shoe he'd yet to fill.

Once, my sister Lucy and I clocked him with the timer my mother used to make sure the roast beef was rare. Fifty-seven minutes passed before he got the other sock on. Frozen in time and space in his own thoughts, Dad would appear perfectly normal, except for the look he'd have in his eye. It wasn't a faraway, glassy-eyed stare, it was a perplexed squint, as if he were trying to see something he wasn't sure was there.

My father could have three episodes in a week, then there'd be a six month reprieve. Usually, but not always, these becalmed fits of melancholic introspection would come over him in the morning as he readied himself to set off for work. But sometimes, they'd ambush him in the evening, when he went upstairs just for a moment to put on a fresh shirt or wash his hands or bring my mother her purse. Occasionally, according to my mom, they'd even bushwhack him after midnight, when a dry mouth or a bad dream would wake him and he'd reach for his slippers with the thought of heading downstairs to make himself a cup of tea or a stiff drink. Only he'd never get there. Technically, those weren't sock moments because my mother would wake up and find her husband cradling a slipper. But the question remained the same: what was going on in Dad's head?

Once, when I was eight, and Dad was lost in his bedroom with nothing but a sock to show him the way home, I snuck into the room, tiptoed past him, and slipped into his big closet. He used it as a dressing room. It was the grandest thing about the house we lived in then; it was a long, narrow, wondrous little right-triangle of a room tucked under the stairs to the attic. It had a round window at one end that offered a view of nothing but sky and it smelled of cedar and shoe polish and dust from parts of his life that were none of a small boy's business.

I knew I was trespassing. The closet was Dad's private space, to be entered only at his personal invitation, and explored under his supervision. There were bone-handled pocket knives to be opened and closed, flyrods to be assembled, and a wooden crate that once held a dozen bottles of Chateau Y'quem but now was home to the collection of Indian arrowheads and stone tomahawks he'd found in freshly plowed fields and unearthed in serpentine burial mounds during what passed for boyhood in his hardscrabble, Midwestern youth. But his hospitality had its limits. Even when I was a baby, if I crawled too far back into his closet and tried to open the old steamer-trunk, latched, strapped closed, and too heavy to lift, visiting hour would be over. My father would pull me away from it as if it were radioactive and in the grownup voice he used with doctors who came to our house to talk to him, he'd announce, “Nothing in there pertains to you.”

I remember asking him once, “Then why can't I look in it?”

“I've lost the key,” was what he said, but I didn't believe it. I just figured that's where Dad kept his real treasure and he didn't want anyone to know because he was afraid they'd steal it.

Back when I was invading Dad's private space at age eight I felt guilty on two counts; I was doing what I had been told not to do and worse, I was taking unfair advantage of what seemed to be, until several decades later, my father's only weakness—his sock moments. Whether out of my own innate sense of fairness or fear of the great man, paralyzed on the edge of the bed, I did not go directly to the trunk that loomed so large in my imagination. Instead, I contented myself with taking out the Indian artifacts. A noisy child by nature, prone to talking to myself out loud, I retold the stories he had shared with me about the Indian tribes that lorded over the state of Illinois long before he was born—the Kaskaskia, the Cahokia, and the Peoria tribes, decimated by their brethren, the Iroquois, in the Beaver Wars. But it wasn't the same. I wanted his voice, I wanted him to come back from wherever he was in his Sock Moment, I wanted him to hear me. Anything was preferable to the loneliness I felt knowing he could be so close and yet still so far away.

Suddenly desperate to break the spell that held him, I did the worst thing I could imagine, far more forbidden and dangerous and unforgivable than opening the trunk—I stood up on the overturned wine box, pulled out the squeaky top drawer of his head-high dresser, and took hold of the loaded .38 caliber long-barreled Smith & Wesson revolver he kept on top of his clean handkerchiefs.

He was so far gone even the sound of me opening the forbidden gun drawer did not wake him. Not even the click of me closing the cylinder snapped him out of whatever held him captive. What if Dad never woke up? What if he never came back from the Sock Moment? What if he stayed petrified like that forever?

Missing him, wanting him, needing him, and mad at him, I pulled back the hammer of the big pistol. My hands shook, my finger closed on the trigger. If I fired the gun, he'd have to wake up. No matter how severely I'd be punished, at least he'd be with me. An eighth of an ounce of trigger pressure away from bringing the hammer down on the moment—the thought occurred to me: what if I pulled the trigger and he still didn't wake up?

Then I'd know there was no hope. I lowered the hammer and placed the handgun back onto tomorrow's handkerchief and closed the squeaky drawer.

I went back out into his bedroom and got down on my knees the way you do in church. Taking the argyle sock from his hand, I gently began to pull it onto his long, narrow, white foot.

I watched as my father's eyes focused down on me. They were grey, pearly and wet, like the inside of a shell pulled up from the sea with something alive inside it.

“Daddy?” He had a scar shaped like a crescent on his forehead. His hair was grey and cut so short you could see the shape of his skull and the veins feeding his brain like the Visible Man model he had helped me put together.

“Yes?” He still sounded far away.

“What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking about…” The sock was on now. He was lacing up the shoe by himself. “…how I feel about things.”

No question, my mother would have sent him to a good psychologist if Dad wasn't already a shrink himself, a semi-famous shrink, in fact, Dr. William T. Friedrich. I failed Psych 1A myself, but I'm told if you made it to the second semester, your professor probably mentioned his name. He was what they used to call a neuropsychopharmacologist. If there's brain candy in your medicine cabinet, chances are my father's messed with your head, too.

—from Pharmakon

release date: August 2008