A gay teenager with a traumatic past takes up his dead lover’s quest for the elixir of life.
Conrad, the on-and-off narrator of Wolff’s debut novel, lost his mother to a fire at age 10, and soon afterward his father descended into alcoholism, liver disease, and furious gloom. When the novel opens, he’s a high school senior living with his aunt, having an affair with his chemistry teacher, and working on a science project about electroshock and memory in rats. When the teacher, Sammy Tampari, is found dead—from suicide? a drug overdose? an experiment gone wrong?—Conrad is pulled ever deeper into an alchemical plot he had not known he was part of, seeking a medical treatment that will save his father by vanquishing death itself. The novel straddles a few decades surrounding the present, ducking back to Sammy’s youth as a depressed gay teenager himself and forward into Conrad’s future as a scientist worried about his husband’s brain-cancer diagnosis. The narration shifts around between first person and third, the point of view alternates between Conrad and Sammy, and the settings include Maine, New York City, Romania, and Easter Island as strongmen, drug dealers, and pharmaceutical researchers join the hunt for a panacea that can cross the blood-brain barrier. More than just a briskly plotted thriller, the book is a meditation on love and loss. The characters’ obsession with the elixir brings home the parallels between eternal life and death: Both are a kind of certainty. The best part is the author’s figurative descriptions, which teeter between quips and revelations. Conrad describes his aunt’s concern for him: “I knew that…the way she treated me, was called ‘love,’ even though it made me feel small and different and as if I would never be loved by anyone the way I was meant to be (like someone who deserved love and didn’t simply need it, like a blood transfusion).” When his lover apologizes, “I had steeled myself to stay angry, but his voice was a snake-bite. Happiness filled me like venom.” Sammy contemplates his own mental state: “The real torture of mental illness is this lingering sensation that normalcy is a thought away, that if only you were strong enough, you could think your way out of it.”
This beautifully written, carefully plotted, intelligent debut is a melancholy pleasure.