Driving Mr. Albert chronicles the adventures of an unlikely threesome--a freelance writer, an elderly pathologist, and Albert Einstein's brain--on a cross-country expedition intended to set the story of this specimen-cum-relic straight once and for all.
After Thomas Harvey performed Einstein's autopsy in 1955, he made off with the key body part. His claims that he was studying the specimen and would publish his findings never bore fruit, and the doctor fell from grace. The brain, though, became the subject of many an urban legend, and Harvey was transformed into a modern Robin Hood, having snatched neurological riches from the establishment and distributed them piecemeal to the curious and the faithful around the world.
The brain itself has seen better days, its chicken-colored chunks floating in a smelly, yellow, formaldehyde broth, yet its beatific presence in the book, riding serenely in the trunk of a Buick Skylark, encased in Tupperware, reflects the uncertainty of Einstein's life. Was he a sinner or a saint, a genius or just lucky? Harvey guards the brain as if it were his own. From time to time, he has given favored specialists a slice or two to analyze, but the results have been mixed. Physiologically, Einstein's brain may have been no different from anyone else's, but plenty of people would like the brain to be more than it is, including Paterniti:
I want to touch the brain. Yes, I've admitted it. I want to hold it, coddle it, measure its weight in my palm, handle some of its fifteen billion now-dormant neurons. Does it feel like tofu, sea urchin, bologna? What, exactly? And what does such a desire make me? One of a legion of relic freaks? Or something worse?
Traversing America with Harvey and his sacred specimen, Paterniti seems to be awaiting enlightenment, much as Einstein did in his last days. But just as the great scientist failed to come up with a unifying theory, Paterniti's chronicle dissolves at times into overly sincere efforts to find importance where there may be none, and it walks a fine line between postmodern detachment and wide-eyed wonderment. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the book offers an engrossing portrait of postatomic America from what may be the ultimate late-20th-century road trip. --Therese Littleton