By the Book
Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brainby Michael Paterniti
Dial Press, 224 pp., $18.95
When Albert Einstein died in 1955, Dr. Thomas Harvey, the chief pathologist at Princeton Hospital, performed an autopsy on the physicist and removed his brain. Then he took it home and kept it. But he did very little research on it and became what anyone who owns something like Einstein's brain and does very little research on it seems destined to become -- a notorious phantom, the source of a dubious-sounding rumor that quickly metamorphosized into urban legend. Over the years how many students at Princeton must have said, "I heard there's this crazy old doctor who has Einstein's brain in his basement"?
By the time Michael Paterniti met him 40 years later, Harvey still had the brain. But by then he had sliced pieces off and shipped them away to fellow researchers and fanatics of the cult of Einstein he took a liking to. Over the course of several months, as he and Paterniti got to know one another, Harvey revealed, in his typically elliptical fashion, that he needed to go "out West" to take care of some business. Paterniti offered himself as a companion and driver; off they went. The business, it turns out, was to return the brain to Berkeley, California, where Evelyn Einstein, Einstein's granddaughter, de-programs people who have been in cults.
Paterniti may be driving, but at one point he calls himself "the directionless one." But then there's nothing quite like driving across the country with a thoroughly enigmatic old man and Einstein's brain in the back seat to cure a lack of direction. "When I ask if he'd rather see Salt Lake City or Los Alamos," Paterniti writes, "he says, 'Oh, sure, that'd be nice.' When I ask the same question a little louder this time, he says, 'Way-ell, real good.'" But the author must decide more than just the route. He has to determine what to do when Harvey refers to him as his "chauffeur"; he has to handle Harvey's reluctance to show him the brain when it's apparent that he's all too willing to show it to virtual strangers. "I get the feeling," Paterniti writes, "that perhaps the brain has been used as an excuse for more than just a road trip in his life, has pried Harvey from some of the people closest to him, employed as both weapon and defense."
Driving Mr. Albert was first an article in Harper's magazine that won the National Magazine Award in 1998. Judging from the book the article became, it's easy to see why. It's alternately hilarious, moving, and always insightful. Paterniti alternates chapters between the road trip and fascinating biographical sketches of Einstein's life, with the result that that dead brain sitting in the back seat seems to come alive, to become the third character. And he's keen on making connections: "I mean, it's not really Einstein and it's not really a brain, but disconnected pieces of a brain, just as the passing farms are not really America but parts of a whole, symbols of the thing itself, which is everything and nothing at once." Only occasionally does Paterniti drive home the metaphor too glaringly. Near the end of the book, he mentions "the million frozen molecules" getting in the way between him and his girlfriend, who were on shaky ground when Paterniti left for the trip. He doesn't have to go quite that far to remind us that he's writing a book about Einstein. Driving Mr. Albert fits into the repeatedly intriguing tradition of the American road book, even though it's not entirely about the road. By the end of the story, something quite magical has happened: You've stopped wondering whether Einstein's brain is really all that special.