Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain - Michael Paterniti
Jonathan and I were browsing the local library's CD collection for some traveling tunes when we came across a release of the Songs Inspired By Literature Project. Some songwriters we'd heard of, some we hadn't; some books we'd read, others we haven't gotten around to yet. We enjoyed the whole CD, but were most uplifted by a bouncy, catchy song entitled "Einstein's Brain," inspired by this book here. So, when we got back to Salina, I immediately bypassed the stack of books on my nightstand and went for this one. It was worth it.

Paterniti has somewhat of a minor obsession with Einstein's brain years before the events of this book take place. For reasons he never quite explains, he spends a lot of time hunting down the pathologist who did Mr. Albert's autopsy (and pocketed the brain), Dr. Thomas Harvey. He strikes up a telephone acquaintance with Dr. Harvey that finally results in Paterniti offering to drive the doctor from his home in Princeton, NJ, to the home of Evelyn Einstein, Albert's granddaughter (or daughter?), in California. If this all sounds terribly random, well, it is. The author himself doesn't quite seem to understand the magic wrapped up in the formaldehyde stench of the Tupperware containers in his trunk. Nevertheless, he goes with it, gives himself over to the weird mixture of sacred and profane, worship and heresy, and that's why the book wins. The story is not one thing; it is a road story, a "Tuesdays With Morrie" generational story, a weird-things-in-history story, and even a coming-of-age story (as Paterniti decides along the way that marrying his girlfriend back home in Maine wouldn't be quite the prison he once thought).

Still, my favorite thing about this book is that it contains some of the best driving-across-Kansas writing I've ever read. Paterniti dwells on Kansas, partly because Dr. Harvey spent many years living in Lawrence (and the trip includes a very bizarre stop at the home of Harvey's old neighbor, William Burroughs), and partly because, as he puts it, it is "the seam where the West untethers from the East so that nothing, nothing will look like the East again. ... we pass some invisible Maginot Line, as the American mind moves from the imprisoning whimsy of cities through some harder-boiled practicality to the eagle flight of the West." True, he does not entirely shed the condescending attitude of a sophisticated Easterner observing the "salt of the Earth" that is my people, but at least he enjoys it and acts like we're worthy of attention, which is a step up from the way Kansans are usually treated.

To close, a passage I found particularly amusing: "Then, 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." No, Mr. Paterniti, it has nothing to do with Einstein. Living through four seasons in a single day is simply what you get for being in Kansas. :-)

Fed to robyn's brain | April 13, 2003