three for the road:
the man who stole einstein's brain

Driving Mr. Albert
Michael Paterniti
(Dial Press, 211 pages)
driving mr. albert cover
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Itís a situation every freelance writer dreams of - having a story drop in your lap, a tale ripe with profound implications and absurd humour, something that can be summed up in a sentence, while demanding maximum word count and, of course, generous expenses.

I can only imagine the Harperís editor who got a call from Michael Paterniti, once they put down the phone, falling victim to a day-long giggling fit. With little more than the occasional spurt of persistent phone calls, Paterniti managed to track down the man who autopsied Albert Einstein and - in a move both inspired and ethically questionable - went home with the great manís brain, vaguely intending to make it available for research. One day, years later, the pathologist mentions that heís intending to take the brain to California to be reunited with Einsteinís granddaughter. Paterniti offers to act as chauffeur. Somewhere, a magazine editor falls to his knees.

When Thomas Harvey sawed open Albert Einsteinís skull and removed the spongy lobes of gray matter, he probably didnít know that heíd become an urban legend. If he knew how this one, daft and impulsive, move would ruin his career, he might have put the saw down, but Michael Paterniti wouldnít have written this story. 

The brain - a handful of chunks rolling around in a tupperware container - is less hero than mascot, or maguffin. The real star of the story is Harvey, a man who seems ill-equipped to act as custodian for this most potent of 20th-century relics, so badly has it dismasted him. Paterniti pieces together the details of his life, mostly spent wandering in and out of relationships and pursuing a haphazard downward mobility, while fielding the manic demands of Einstein worshippers and lawsuits.

All the while, their picaresque journey unfolds, and he describes the man sitting next to him in the rented Buick as terminally vague, a classic passive-aggressive type, incapable of supplying Paterniti - or anyone else - with a single insight on his life or the brain, while inspiring real interest and fascination, even lust, in nearly everyone he meets.

As our narrator, Paterniti also seems like a type - the conflicted, ambitious, yet directionless young man whose mid-life crisis begins at thirty and continues until retirement, the only lifestyle for which he has any aptitude. He describes his growing frustration with Harvey vividly, and frets over the relationship he left at a crucial point at home, while musing over the significance of the brain in language that smacks of the philosophy tutorial and too many late-night viewings of "Star Trek".

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis