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Driving Mr. Albert
A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

Michael Paterniti

ARJ2 Chapter: Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Random House/NY in 2004
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2011


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Is this book fact or fiction? Didn't matter to me, as I had too much fun reading it. Paterniti's play with words leads the reader to bungee jump over steep "metaphoric ledges" swinging at prosodic pinatas all the way down(1).

Michael was on a ledge with his own life and the idea of locating a weird doctor who dissected Einstein and now possessed his brain was too tantalizing for him to pass up. Like many others he had tried unsuccessfully to locate Tom Harvey and failed. Then one day a random conversation led to a discovery.

[page viii] As time passed, I thought less and less frequently about Einstein's brain, filed it in life's arcana file. But several years later, living in New Mexico, I struck up a friendship with my landlord, a man named Steven, who randomly happened to be friends with the writer William Burroughs. A veteran of all things cool and outré, Steven often watered the flower garden in his adobe compound where I lived. When I told him about Einstein's brain, he didn't even blink. "Yeah, the guy with the brain lives next to William in Lawrence, Kansas," he said.

Not believing Steven till he came up with the doctor's phone number from Burroughs, he called the number and said, "Uhhh . . . Is this Thomas Harvey?" and got a prompt, "Way-ell, yes, it sure is." The sound of Tom's Kentucky drawl gets to be an old friend by the end of this trek across America from the Jersey Shore to the Golden Gate. How did the idea of the trip begin for Michael who was otherwise stagnated in his life, as he put it, "a perfect study in uselessness"?

[page 18] During these months, I visited Dr. Harvey three or four times. Once, when we went for sushi together, Harvey vaguely mentioned that he needed to take care of some business "out West." Before leaving Kansas, he'd had a little fender bender, so there was the matter of meeting with insurance people. And then he said he was hoping to get to California to see several neuroanatomists who'd studied pieces of Einstein's brain. But most important, he wanted to meet Evelyn Einstein, the granddaughter of Albert, who lived in Berkeley. Although he didn't explain why, I assumed he might be facing down some late-in-life desire to resolve the past with the Einstein family once and for all. Or, before his age permanently grounded him, maybe he wanted to hand the brain over to the next of kin.

So Michael blurted out, "I could drive you" surprising even himself. Harvey's reply was classic, "Way-ell, I don't see why not." So, the "directionless one" was going to drive the pathologist and his prize, the shiny pearl in the oyster of Einstein's skull, from sea to shimmering sea.

His trip began in Portland, Maine where his live-in friend girl, Sara, dropped him off at the bus stop. In Boston he switched to a train and offers this vignette of the difference between bus riders and train riders when he encounters the train riders after a long bus ride.

[page 29] On board, there nothing but easterners: cashmere-sweatered students on their way from Harvard to Yale for a debating contest, businesspeople with briefcases and laptop computers, well-dressed older folks off on a museum trip to Manhattan. These were train people with their subdued bonhomie rather than bus people with their naked desperation.

The brain is ensconced in Harvey's duffel bag and placed in the trunk of Michael's Buick Skylark during the trip. Michael wants to see the brain, but can't figure out how to get Harvey to say, "Way-ell, okay." Instead he day-dreams of how he might sneak a peak, a touch, of the magnificent treasure tucked away in his trunk.

[page 42] A confession: I want Harvey to sleep. I want him to fall into a deep, blurry, Rip Van Winkle daze, and I want to park the Skylark mother-ship and walk around to the trunk and open it. I want Harvey snoring loudly as I unzip the duffel bag and reach my hands inside, and I want to what? touch Einstein's brain. I want to touch the brain. Yes, I've admitted it. I want to hold it, coddle it, measure its weight in my palm, handle some of its fifteen billion now-dormant neurons. Does it feel like tofu, sea urchin, bologna? What, exactly? And what does such a desire make me? One of the relic freaks? Or something worse?

It is as if Michael were singing to his Buick subcompact, in the words of Johnny Mercer's famous lyrics:

Skylark, have you anything to say to me?
Won't you tell me where my love can be?

The answer is "in the trunk, of course". Michael yearned to touch Einstein's brain, to ride it like a ray of light as Einstein once dreamed, "To clasp time itself. To feel the warp and wobble of the universe." (Page 43) He thought of Einstein's thoughts:

[page 43] "I am a deeply religious nonbeliever," he said. "This is a somewhat new kind of religion." Pushing further, he sought to marry science and religion by redefining their terms. "I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling," he said. "I also believe that this kind of religiousness . . . is the only creative religious activity of our time."

When Michael calls Evelyn for the first time to discuss a meeting between her and Tom Harvey, she reveals a sense of humor similar to her grandfather's, "she says, 'Ah, yes, the White Rabbit.' Then falls silent for a moment. 'He lived in Kansas; his name's Harvey. Enough said." By this time in the book, we have witnessed enough of Dr. Tom Harvey's hijinks to think of him as Jimmy Stewart's oversized, imaginary white rabbit! Evelyn expresses some disgust, demurs, and then relents with the thought, "I'm interested in science." The game is still afoot and early the next morning they are flying westward in the Skylark and the author lays out a picturesque metaphor, "The earth of Ohio looks pale and vulnerable, as if it's been under a winter-long Band-Aid."

In Kansas City, they stop to visit Raye, one of Harvey's ex-wives, who walked out on him years before. As Michael watches Harvey ineptly helping Raye fold flat her empty boxes from a recent move, he muses to himself, "By the time we reach San Francisco, I suspect I'll be gray and hunched myself."

[page 76] Now, witnessing Harvey rendered somewhat useless, I wonder how it is that you become a man with ex-wives and ex-families, how you start as a young doctor with all the promise in the world and end up working in a plastics factory. And how you wake up near the end of that life in a body that betrays the will of your mind, rusted by rickety joints that walk you down the hall three times slower than they once did. Until you somehow find yourself standing in a generic Kansas City living room with a religious calendar on the wall, with half of America behind you and another half to go, doing mortal battle with a cardboard box, as if it's some wild alligator.

After dinner in a kitschy restaurant they take Raye back to her daughter's house, and Michael watches the awkward goodbye of Harvey and Raye and distracts himself by listening to the hog prices on the radio.

[page 78] And then Harvey is crab-walking back to the mother ship, falls in with a sigh of good-bye relief. Later, hundreds of miles from here, he'll realize he's misplaced his green beret, left perhaps on the table in the living room. But now we buckle and ease back out of the driveway, accelerate and vanish, jetting beneath the flare of streetlights, unspooling across the country again. Harvey and I and Einstein's brain, in the ashram of the Skylark, counting the beads of our memory, our losses and gains.

The author layers on top of his trans-America travelogue, as if it were a thick slice of stone-grounded bread, a thick fruit compote of quotes and stories about Einstein. For example, this quote: When asked about relativity, Einstein summed it up for reporters like this, "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour." (Page 80) Or the surprising fact that Einstein did not receive a Nobel Prize for his e=mc2 equivalence, nor for his paradigm-shaking theory of relativity, but rather for his explanation for the photoelectric effect, which provided the evidence proving that light beams consist of photons. (Page 82)

The chunks of fruit in the author's tasty compote were the juicy stories involving famous people Einstein hobnobbed with and shared thoughts with from all over the world.

[page 84] He met Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic. In letters he shared pacifist sympathies with Gandhi. He supped with his friend Charlie Chaplin and the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst . . . and became fast friends with the queen of Belgium . . .

All these things and many more from the man whose chopped-up brain sloshed away, preserved in Tupperware containers in the trunk of the Skylark traveling from coast to coast. And all along the way, Michael is amazed by Harvey how he manages his life, going from thing to thing apparently unfazed by it all and bundles Harvey's complexities and contradictions into a series of insightful metaphors.

[page 95] Harvey seems to travel through life with far fewer regrets. If he's a sinner, he doesn't seem to know it yet. If he's a car, then he's the one doing fifty-five in the right-hand lane of the highway, forgetfully, unapologetically, flashing a blinker he long ago acted on and he's been on this highway for over forty years. If he's a house, then he's one with lots of disconnected additions, each new one built in six- and seven-year spurts full of new wives, kids, and jobs, the only constant being the wallpaper, pink floral blooms of brains floating to the ceiling.

If Michael is intrigued by Harvey's life, it's probably because he lived in similar spurts with various women but no kids. If I'm intrigued by this book, it's partly because my own life went through such spurts with wives but with kids and stepkids. Now as he drives west from Kansas City into the open prairies, Michael's most recent squeeze is staying behind in New England and has not been answering her phone for days. He muses about his life and the girl he left behind to some uncertain fate.

[page 101] Days pass and months pass and years pass and you light the holy candle of yourself by the glimmer of someone else, and just when you think you're burned out on her, you realize that she's the single thing that raises you above yourself. And now she's dumped you flat and taken up with a lumberjack or that sensitive guy in town who runs the bookstore or the FedEx man who wears tight shorts in the summer. That guy! How could she?

On page 131 the author says that the Japanese characters for "Relativity Principle" are quite similar to those for "love" and "sex". I recall learning that the Chinese ideogram for "crisis" embodied the two ideograms for "danger" and "opportunity", and I notice that this bit of etymological musing about the relativity principle has placed me on that park bench next to the pretty girl for an hour which seems like a minute.

Eventually our intrepid trio makes it to California, into the Southland, as locals call the L. A. Basin. Nothing cures the boredom of the monotonous desert faster than a strong shot of 190 Proof Rush Hour Freeway Driving into L. A.

[page 163] We make Los Angeles at rush hour. After three days of driving through the desert, the city explodes in a psychedelic flash of lush pam trees and red taillights on I-10. We pass a gold-earringed Asian woman, driving a red BMW with a vanity plate that reads 2SUCCESS. It seems the cars here the Hummers, Jags, and Benzes; the Accords, Jettas, even the Escorts gleam with their own declaration of erotic or financial prowess: 8MILL; ORGAZ; MONEY. As if everyone is trying to leave some indelible impression of themselves in this five-second casting call of heavy traffic.

One last glimpse of Mr. Albert when his brain was still intact in his skull, proffered this time by the great political commentator and life critic, Will Rogers, who described one of Einstein's visits to L.A.:

[page 165] "He came here for rest and seclusion. He ate with everybody, talked with everybody, posed for everybody . . . attended every luncheon, every dinner, every movie opening, every marriage, and two-thirds of the divorces. In fact, he made himself such a good fellow that nobody had the nerve to ask what his theory was."

Now, like Wiley Post or Wile E. Coyote, we have jumped over a book full of Paterniti's steep metaphoric ledges and have fallen into oblivion or just into the next chapter. We can now lay down our Whiffle bat as no more dazzling pinatas filled with juicy prose will be flying past us. We have placed Mr. Albert's billions of synapses in the hands of young Elliot Krauss at Princeton and allowed Dr. Tom Harvey to go off into his good night. Was it just a minute or an hour ago we started this adventure? You know the one we call life.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. On page 211 in Acknowledgments, the author writes, "To Bill, who talked me off several metaphorical ledges, I owe my prized Whiffle ball bat."

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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