Journeys, for some reason, bring out the philosopher in all of us; from Chaucer to Twain to Steinbeck, writers have always drawn inspiration from their travels. Add to this list the name of author Michael Paterniti, whose new book, Driving Mr. Albert, is quite possibly the most confounding story of a road trip I've ever read.
Like Paterniti, we've all heard kooky tales and urban legends from time to time, but few of us make a point of determining if these stories are true. One such legend was that the doctor who did the autopsy on Albert Einstein had kept his brain, supposedly to study it, and had since vanished.
Paterniti was interested in the story, so imagine his surprise when the proverbial "friend of a friend" revealed that he actually knew the doctor a man named Thomas Harvey and put our intrepid author in touch with him. As it turned out, the retired pathologist was living with his 67-year-old girlfriend in Princeton, New Jersey, just down the road, so to speak, from Paterniti's home in Maine.
So what would you do when confronted with this information? Probably not drive across the country to meet Einstein's granddaughter with the brain of Albert in the trunk and the man who cut it out in the seat next to you. Then again, we aren't all writers.
As Odysseus' Odyssey is much more than the story of a trip, so too is Driving Mr. Albert. It's merely a shelf upon which Paterniti places the several books he's written here: a biography, a travelogue, and a social commentary, with touches of philosophy and humor thrown into the mix.
The journey ostensibly stems from the doctor's desire to visit Einstein's granddaughter in California. Paterniti knows there's a story here, but his perception of what the story is remains unfocused. It quickly sharpens into a look at backroads America through the lens of the quirky Dr. Harvey's personality. In tiny Lucas, Kansas, the travelers encounter a roadside museum with a massive re-creation of the Garden of Eden, done entirely in concrete. Later they spend an evening with writer William S. Burroughs, a former neighbor of Harvey living out his last months in Lawrence, Kansas. Their meeting is a scene straight from Waiting for Godot.
The adventurous travelers are brought back to reality at the end by Einstein's down-to-earth and slightly bemused granddaughter. In her late 50s and battling cancer, she nonetheless agrees to meet with the pair and is friendly to both. Harvey's final resolution of what to do with Einstein's brain, and Evelyn Einstein's reaction, are both surprising and appropriate.
Driving Mr. Albert is lyrical and comical, witty and bitter, and dazzling at times. The most unusual of subjects is presented in clear, heartfelt prose that made this reader glad he was along for the ride.
James Neal Webb is no Einstein, but he is smart enough to pick good books to review.
BrainpowerMore than 40 years after his death, Albert Einstein still fascinates us. Although hundreds of books have been written about the brilliant physicist, it appears that readers (and publishers) can't get enough. Three new books planned for release this fall offer ample opportunities to increase your Einstein IQ:Â¥ E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (Walker &and Co., $23, ISBN 0802713521) Author David Bodanis attempts to demystify the theory that changed the world and explain the consequences of Einstein's discovery. (October)Â¥ Einstein's Brainchild: Relativity Made Relatively Easy! (Prometheus Books, $28, ISBN 1573928577) A simplified, readable summary of Einstein's work by physicist Barry Parker. (September)Â¥ Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (Viking, $27.95, ISBN 0670894303) New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye focuses on Einstein's troubled marriage to his first wife and collaborator, Mileva Maric. (October)