Pharmakon is a Greek word meaning both poison and cure. As the title of Dirk Wittenborn's novel, the word not only defines the early days of prescribed mood-altering drugs, but also the difficulty of truly understanding the triumphs and tragedies of a family's story.

The novel is narrated by Zach Friedrich, youngest son of William Friedrich, who, just after World War II, develops a scale of happiness that allows clinicians to rate whether a person is becoming more or less happy (and more or less sane). He goes on to create, with a Yale colleague, something he believes will be a cure for unhappiness, a pill derived from a New Guinea plant. When the trial ends in violence, the project is buried, William gets a job at Rutgers and Zach is born and grows up without knowing the secrets the family left behind.

Despite the heavy subject matter, including murder, mental illness, family secrets and betrayal, Pharmakon is actually quite funny - not surprising, given the author's short stint on "Saturday Night Live." Wittenborn is a witty and intelligent storyteller, and his own life story mirrors that of Zach's: he's a child born to a psychopharmacologist father who had a few disgruntled patients of his own.

Readers will have fun trying to decide which parts of the story are autobiographical (was there really a girl named Sunshine and a gaggle of parrots in the mulberry tree?) and which parts come from the author's imagination. Either way, this is the kind of book one imagines college professors read on their summer vacations: one that is at once smart, darkly funny, entertaining and informational, told with love and an eye toward the bigger issue of how families endure both the poisons and the curatives of everyday life.

Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.

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