Driving Mr. Albert

Michael Paterniti

Read November 2003

Paterniti is a down-on-his-luck, out-of-sorts writer trying to reconcile his life, romance, and other such staples of angst. He finds the slightly pathetic doctor, Thomas Harvey, who removed Albert Einstein's brain during Einstein's post-mortem, and has been distributing chunks of it to “research” in the intervening decades, while keeping the remainder in a Tupperware jar. Paterniti offers to drive Harvey cross-country to California to meet (and introduce the brain to) Einstein's grand-daughter, who is a rich character with issues of her own.

Can anything good come of this?

Paterniti sees the blank territory betwixt as his tabula rasa on which to unleash his relatively uninteresting emotional turmoil. He is just smart enough to understand that brains do not entirely people make, genetic determinism is at best controversial, and so on. Sometimes you almost see him smirking at all this attention to aa few bits of grey matter. But he probably realizes that too much skepticism would make the reader wake up to the silly premise and stop reading, so he never explores this in any depth.

Oh, there are some vignettes. Evelyn Einstein is—–dig this—a “cult deprogrammer”. Paterniti has the odd deft observation, as when he describes a crowd huddled into (and vigorously smoking in) a pancake joint on a cold day: “Take your hallowed halls of Congress or the littered floor of the Stock Exchange, America is built on its pancake houses!” In Kansas, he comes across one of those archtypical creations of American nuts, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, with the twist that the Garden is made all in cement (the better to preserve it for eternity, presumably). Of Dinsmoor, Paterniti writes,

In our national parlance, what's usually meant by the word “maverick” is someone who skirts the edge of sanity—or is so insane as to appear sane—who then does something absolutely insane and yet, after the passage of time, and especially if the maverick's creation yields a profit of any kind, is deemed less and less insane until the maverick worms his or her way into the fibers of history. Then generations grow to envy the ingenuity and courage of the maverick while glossing over the maverick's genetic kookiness. On such shoulders, a country rises.

He should have said “a nation rises”, though.

There are two surreal episodes in the book. The first is a visit in Lawrence, Kansas to William S. Burroughs (whose neighbor Harvey had been) just before the writer died that neatly captures the Beat's general insanity. The other is a chronicle of a Japanese hero-worshipper who points out that the Japanese characters for “relativity principle” were similar to those for “love” and “sex”. These are amusing interludes, but have nothing to do with the subject matter... depending on what that is.

The book does have one somewhat startling revelation, which is Einstein's apparent break with his pacifism. Was it a sham? Was the letter to Roosevelt really an aberration? Did Einstein collaborate with the Navy's arsenal builders? Could he tell science apart from politics? There is a tantalizing bit about this, then nothing more.

All through the book, I couldn't help but think this was the classic essay-run-wild (like One Good Turn), except the athor doesn't have the good sense (or modesty) to realize it. In the acknowledgments, Paterniti thanks Leslie Hermsdorf “who first spotted a real book in this tale”. A pox on you, Leslie.