Here’s an urban legend that turns out to be true: the pathologist who autopsied Albert Einstein kept his brain, and magazine journalist Paterniti spent a nutty couple of weeks with him, ferrying it to California.
Dr. Thomas Harvey was a pathologist at Princeton Hospital who had a slight acquaintance with the world-renowned physicist; when he performed the autopsy on Einstein after his death in 1955, Harvey removed the famed brain and just kept it. Nearly 45 years later, he decided to show it to Evelyn Einstein, the great man’s granddaughter. The only problem was that she lived in San Francisco, while Harvey was in New Jersey. Enter Paterniti, who realized the journalistic potential—the existential potential!—of a road trip cross-country with the brain of the most famous scientist of the 20th century. The tone of the book is established right away: Paterniti is a bit of a smartass, a would-be Hunter Thompson in search of a guru of gonzo, and what better guru than the man who saved Einstein’s brain? Throughout their journey, Paterniti keeps shifting his focus from the historical and cultural significance of Einstein, a topic on which he is quite intelligent, to larger, more ponderous meanderings on time, space, love, and loss. The journey is not really enriched by a chapter-long visit to William Burroughs, a sort of obligatory but unnecessary bow to the Beats. Along the way, Paterniti juggles his complex emotions at being separated from his girlfriend and their dog, his increasingly mixed feelings toward Harvey, who seems to treat him as a glorified chauffeur rather than an accomplice in some delicious stunt, and his growing unease amidst the detritus of American road culture. Harvey is inscrutable, which doesn’t help the story but rings true. The result is a readable but sloppy mixture of cultural and scientific history, road book, and rather obvious personal memoir.
An ill-digested mix, although not without its felicities.