According to every single piece of promotional literature accompanying my review copy of Pharmakon, the author, Dirk Wittenborn, "was born because a man came to kill his father." The story is that Wittenborn's dad was an associate psychology professor at Yale when a student went a little cuckoo and wrote out a death list of psychology professors he wanted to kill. Wittenborn's father was first on the list, but he was outside planting tulips when the killer arrived. I don't know what happened in the killer's head—maybe he thought the scene was too pastoral for bloodshed and decided to take out the next person on the list instead.
Wittenborn is reading at Powell's this week. I would encourage everyone to go because it's not every day you meet someone whose dad was on a hit list and/or taught at Yale.
As for Wittenborn's semi-autobiographical novel itself, I wouldn't buy it in hardcover or paperback, but if I got it for a birthday gift, I wouldn't get in line at Powell's to sell it right away. The writing is decent, but the author never gives himself enough time to explore the various genres and points of view he gives a whirl.
In these post-James Frey days, the fictional memoir might be a more viable option for publishers than creative non-fiction, but in Pharmakon, the fictional memoir does the first half of the fictional book a terrible disservice. After spending the first half of the book in the omniscient third person narrating the story of two scientists testing out an anti-depressant culled from leaves used by a faraway tribe, Wittenborn begins the second half by recalling his family's dynamics after the murder plot. Then Wittenborn slips into third person again to imagine what life was like for the killer in the mental hospital he was confined to after the murder. These passages are incredibly powerful and creepy and warrant their own book, or maybe Wittenborn should've stayed with the original story and scope. But alas, Wittenborn, like so many authors—particularly those white and male—found the hardships suffered by Caucasian males forced to live in the upper-middle class simply too tempting to pass up. The result is a novel that will fit nicely with the rest of the WASP American male coming-of-age stories of which the publishing industry never tires.