Michael Paterniti has more talent than he knows what to do with, and I mean that literally. His first book, “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain,” gleams with good phrases (sample: Albert Einstein “looked as if he’d just smoked an exploding cigar”), and its cross-continental-road-trip structure gives him all the sunsets, snowfalls and amber-waves grandeur that any ardent young journalist could desire.
Several years ago, at a period when Paterniti was at loose ends, he hooked up with Thomas Stolz Harvey, an octogenarian former pathologist whose single claim to fame was that he performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955 and then, in an ethically dubious coda, made off with the physicist’s brain. Paterniti would drive down from Maine, where he was living with his girlfriend, to Harvey’s house near Princeton, and when one day Harvey mentioned that he had some business to attend to “out West,” the young journalist offered to drive him and the brain to California.
Hence this alluringly capacious book. In the course of documenting their travels the author gets to draw on information about Einstein’s life; scientific speculation on Einstein’s theories and on the nature of the human brain; an earlier film documentary about Einstein’s brain; Harvey’s (depressing) life story; Harvey’s prickly behavior toward Paterniti; and, above all, America — the America whose startling bigness and strangeness and multiplicity are familiar to anybody who has ever driven across the country.
The formula won Paterniti a National Magazine Award for feature writing when the article from which the book has been expanded appeared in Harper’s in 1997. So why did I feel increasingly irked as I read?
The first of many reasons is the manufactured nature of the project. At the beginning Paterniti is knocking around disconsolately as his girlfriend, another writer, plugs away industriously on a book; as soon as he learns about Harvey, you can hear the wheels turning. The problem is less the process — how else does a writer find a subject? — than the project itself, which, unless you really believe that Einstein’s pickled brain is exceptionally important either scientifically or culturally (and Paterniti can’t seem to talk himself into either notion), is, to put it politely, piffle, though it does offer the potential to be entertainingly bizarre, in a stoned kind of way.
So there is a lot of stoned humor and stoned reflection, as, for example, when the author contemplates the idea of the physicist’s resurrection:
What would it feel like to be born with an FBI file already open on you? Or to know you had once revolutionized the world with your work, but then never found true love? Might you try to trade one for the other? Or would you just sit around smoking pot all day, rebelling against yourself?
It doesn’t sound like Einstein is the one who has been toking.
Take Truman, Hitler, Hirohito, and Churchill, combine their heights, and you have an NBA player. And yet they destroyed much of Europe and Japan, and left millions dead.
Twenty miles down the road, the snow suddenly slows to mere ticks, and a white light begins to fill space in the sky, prying open the clouds. 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.
That’s very nicely written, for crap. Intermingled with this kind of malarkey is the author’s grating Eastern amazement that life exists beyond New Jersey — he writes about the middle of the country in a tone of sustained amazement, constantly jumping between you and the page to shout, “Isn’t that weird!” Then there’s the ongoing discussion (all but standard in road-trip books these days) of his problems with his girlfriend (now his wife), which has about the same effect as a stranger’s pouring out his embarrassing life story to you at an airport: Why is he telling me this? you wonder. How can I get him to stop?
Throughout “Driving Mr. Albert” (I guess the title is a play on “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has next to nothing in common with this book), Paterniti’s instinctive skepticism remains at cross-purposes with his hucksterism. He enjoys portraying Einstein as a lovable old sausage-eating codger, and the biographical sections make it clear that he is genuinely taken with the physicist. But demystification is not what this endeavor is about. On the contrary, Paterniti has to pump the brain up into a magical object to justify writing a book about it, and that takes constant effort. Toward the end of the trip, after a long struggle, he manages to wrest the organ from the ornery old Harvey and hold it in his own grasp:
I am for a brief moment the man with the plan, the keeper of the cosmos. Do I feel the thing that relics, totems, and fetishes are supposed to make people feel? Something that I can believe in? A power larger than myself that I can submit to? Salvation? Have I touched eternity?
I can answer each of those questions for him with the same two-letter word.