A deeply personal account of the acclaimed neurologist.
Former New Yorker staff writer Weschler (Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of Astrophysicists, 2017, etc.) concedes that this varied mix of biography and memoir is not a full biography of Oliver Sacks (1933-2015). Rather, the author focuses on the early 1980s, when he was regularly meeting with Sacks, “serving as a sort of Boswell to his Johnson,” compiling notebooks for a profile he planned to write. For Weschler, these years are the “hinge of [Sacks’] professional and creative progress,” when this “virtual hermit would be on the precipice of worldwide fame.” What emerges is a dazzling portrait of a “graphomaniac,” a “grand soliloquizer,” an “unparalleled clinician,” a “studiously detached naturalist,” prodigious swimmer, weight lifter, and reckless motorcycle speed demon. Weschler learned a number of intimate details about Sacks, including that he was gay: “I have lived a life wrapped in concealment and wracked by inhibition,” Sacks told him. He asked Weschler not to publish the profile, and it was only when he was dying that he told him: “Now….You have to.” Much of the book is told in Sacks’ own words, which Weschler transcribed, or from handwritten letters Sacks sent him, giving the narrative a rich immediacy. Early on, he realized Sacks was a prodigy who possessed a “strange consciousness and awareness…of his own oddity.” Weschler also interviewed Sacks’ close friends, including the poet Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller, the physician member of the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe. The author chronicles his time spent with Sacks on his rounds with patients as he brilliantly diagnosed their neurological illnesses. He joined Sacks when his bestseller, Awakenings, was being filmed; Sacks and Robin Williams became friends. Also included is a forthright “digression” on Sacks’ propensity to exaggerate or make things up. The two were still very close near the end, and Weschler intimately recounts Sacks’ final years.
A thoroughly engaging and enchanting story.