Pharmakon had me, if not by the first sentence, then certainly by the end of the first page. This elegantly written and often witty novel envelops you in the story of a brilliant, ambitious Yale psychologist, Will Friedrich, as told by his youngest son. Beginning in the early 1950s, and leading us through the increasingly drug-dependent decades that follow, the novel traces the long-reaching effects of Friedrich’s experiments on a drug that promised happiness and the end of depression. The tone turns dark, however, as the experiment goes wrong and tragedy enters the lives of the Friedrich family in the person of the paranoid Casper Nesdic, who becomes their all too real boogey-man. The self-deprecating Friedrich alienates his children and almost destroys his marriage through his actions and then reactions to the dire consequences of his experiment.
The author’s skills as a screenwriter are evident in the visual impact of so much of the novel. One often can’t help but imagine the events on-screen as they unfold. The novel’s comic pacing is reminiscent of Richard Russo and Jon Hassler. The comedy is suspended, however, when the experiment goes awry and Casper Nesdic starts his revenge for the study that promised him happiness but brought instead disillusionment and misery. It becomes Casper’s mission to prevent Friedrich “from contaminating anyone else’s mind with hope.”
Looking through the lens of the author’s mordant humor, the book explores the country’s slide into its ever increasing dependence on drugs, both legal and illegal, to extinguish boredom, unhappiness and every degree of psychic discomfort. Highly recommended.