IN 1997, WHEN Michael Paterniti's article "Driving Mr. Albert" first appeared in Harper's, it caused a small furor in the New York publishing scene. Here was an essay that captured the quirkiness of modern life: the true story of Thomas Harvey, a pathologist who stole Einstein's brain, then, 42 years later, stashed several fist-sized pieces of it in a Tupperware container and hauled them across the country to meet the physicist's granddaughter, with the author acting as his chauffeur. Paterniti's article, which won the 1998 National Magazine Award, was a work of wry characterization and sly cultural critique. So it's something of a disappointment to find that the book that grew out of the piece is a haphazard mix of excellence and sludge.
Paterniti has preserved the best passages of his article--among them, bizarre meetings with novelist William Burroughs; and a Hollywood agent who specializes in protecting the images of dead celebrities--and the extended length allows him to present a more penetrating dissection of Harvey's affable egoism, as well as an account of his own motivations along the trip. But the book's many bright moments are whitewashed by passages of annoying mystical conjecture. What to say about a writer whose descriptions can make you feel autumn descending from the sky but who insists on imagining what Albert Einstein would think of "tae-bo and tofu burgers, Jesse Ventura and Bill Clinton, silicone breasts and penis augmentations"?
Paterniti seems to have slipped into a classic first-book desire to pontificate about everything, a position that leaves him striving to insert profundity, and Einstein, into the most mundane situations. Here, for example, is his reaction to seeing Harvey watch a fly in a small-town diner:
What is it that he sees now, watching that fly? And is it something less somehow than if Einstein himself were sitting right here, watching that same fly? Is it that genius is really nothing more than a matter of seeing as simply as possible, that somewhere in this world the image already exists waiting for the camera, or the profound idea already exists waiting for the mind to happen on it?"
Paterniti's deft conglomeration of memoir, travelogue, Einstein biography, brain arcanum, and celebrity fetishism is full of delightfully oddball moments. Yet by inflating his slim volume with highfalutin intentions, he comes to resemble Harvey, a man determined to imbue dead matter with special properties that common sense suggests just aren't there.