A high-stakes techno-thriller about researchers in 1960s Berkeley, California.
Graduate student Will Getz is at the top of his game. He has a supportive professor at one of the pre-eminent research institutions in the country; a beautiful, talented girlfriend; and a future that seems full of promise—until he makes one giant mistake. His attempt to synthesize pfaffidine, a naturally occurring plant compound with potential uses in cancer treatments, hits a wall when he can’t repeat the 12th and final step in his experiment. Rather than admit failure, he commits the ultimate sin against science by falsifying his results, setting off a calamitous chain of events that will eventually claim more than one life. The term “sin” is apt here, as Rodricks’ novel is Christ-haunted, to borrow a term that author Flannery O’Connor once applied to her native South. It features at least one lapsed Catholic priest, a host of newly secular scientists (among them Will and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Gina), a nominal Zen monk, and a dangerous cult that appropriates some of Christianity’s more macabre iconography. Throughout, the author keeps the plot moving at a quick pace, but never sacrifices character development. Readers learn, for instance, about Will’s and Gina’s fraught family lives—their commonalities, no doubt, serve to bring them closer. But for all the novel’s vaunted civil rights and counterculture sympathies (it name-checks the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and pillories the Vietnam War), its female characters get short shrift. Although Gina and another woman, Elaine, occasionally speak about subjects other than men, their lives are wholly defined by their associations with them, primarily Will himself. Rodricks’ prose is authoritative, particularly when he describes the science behind pfaffidine, and it’s often pleasurable to read. However, he stalks too-easy quarry; other authors have already adequately eulogized the lost idealism of the ’60s, and Rodricks neither adds to that literature nor runs counter to its chief claims.
A novel featuring warmed-over nostalgia among the academic set.