A meandering first novel tracks the experiences of participants in a drug story.
The two-week study, in August 1999, is seen through the eyes of narrator Billy Schine, a 28-year-old Harvard graduate with a problem: He owes sixty grand in student loan repayments, and Ragnar is hot on his trail in Manhattan. Billy has never met Ragnar, the collection agency guy, but he has lurid fantasies about him. It’s time to skip town, so feckless Billy abandons his live-in girlfriend Sally and his temp job as a word processor and heads upstate to the medical research center. There, along with other “normals” (healthy, allergy-free types), he will be tested for reactions to an anti-psychotic drug. But where is the novel headed? Will it be a medical thriller? There’s only a taste of that, at the end. Black comedy? There’s sophomoric kidding around, but that doesn’t qualify. How about Billy’s existential drama? He’s an outsider and underachiever, the product of parents who doted solely on each other; now his mother has Alzheimer’s and his father is arranging for them to die together on their wedding anniversary. Yet Billy remains a lightweight. When the study is over and he has the chance to be the subject of an off-the-books, potentially lethal experiment, Billy jumps at it. Why? He has no good answer. By default, then, this is a novel about some guys hanging out: swallowing their pills, giving their blood, swapping war stories of life on the guinea-pig circuit, and watching way too much television. For good measure, Gilbert (the collection Remote Feed, 1998) throws in a delusional roommate subdued by security; some unlikely animal rights activists; and a lone female patient, Gretchen, who makes full use of all the available men. Her mission statement, incidentally, makes more sense than anything Billy has to say for himself.
Gilbert’s intelligence and verbal dexterity don’t count for much, unharnessed to theme or plot.