"For unrestricted use the West has permitted only alcohol and tobacco; all other chemical Doors in the Wall are labeled Dope, and their unauthorized takers are Fiends."
--Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception
As an 'historical' novel, it reminds me somewhat of Robert Graves' I, Claudius. The difference being that Graves wrote his dramatic history about the events of centuries past, while Fahey dramatizes events that he and I lived through, peopled by characters we actually saw or knew, some still walking. But, to a reader in his twenties, and those to come, the sixties are as surely ancient history as the Roman Empire.
The adventure begins with Captain Al Hubbard. He is a prime player in a covert operation to create a superman. 'Better living through chemistry,' as it were. A Captain America, in his own brave new world, and a hero for the new world order. And in the end, a Judas Goat. Captain Hubbard, associate to the powerful, intimate of inner circles, is a living pharmacy, never without his belt-case of glass vials, each full of a tasteless brown liquid, a few hundred miligrams of which will show you the open doors of Heaven, or the depths of Hell. An early meeting of the Captain and his fellow conspirators takes place on board the yacht Wisdom.
The Captain's compatriots are Generals, Admirals, Doctors, and saints (Huxley, perhaps, shadowed by his creations, i.e., George Orwell). All are sinners, except for Huxley and perhaps the Captain; whose hearts are pure. Do we hear F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Damned if there aren't questions raised, such as, is the driven snow pure? Was the original Sandoz acid a dirty brown? Was there a Mosely (Owsley), who turned the dirty brown a fluffy white? Was Dwight Eisenhower really president in the 1950s?
The group's choice for superman is Franklin Moore. Moore is a copper curled, bull-necked, muscular, country boy who is on a creative writing scholarship at Stanford. He's a world champion wrestler, a boy genius, a one-woman man, and soon to be totally spaced on Delysid.
And so we have a politically incorrect protagonist. But in these secretly sanctioned but officially unauthorized experiments with pharmaceuticals, all the characters are devoid of hypocrisy--'to live outside the law, you must be honest' as Dylan said. The men are pagan and sexist. Most of the women are sex objects. Yet, Franklin and his love interest (and 'double' agent) Lorraine are a basically monogamous couple. Suddenly becoming parents of a child not their own, they form and maintain a loving family amid the surrounding chaos. Until drugs transform Moore into 'Grampa,' bald and venerated by a generation of drifters, dopers, slackers, and dharma bums.
"Wisdom's Maw is ultimately about good and evil.
"We have the drugs, we can make people feel any way we want them to feel. What society needs to do, is to decide how we want people to feel?"
Returning to the subject of the historical perspective of the story, much related here actually took place, and it could even have happened this way. Certainly it captures the spirit, the energy, the mad youthful insanity of the times.
For example, one of the Captain's superiors is General Creasy, who says "I believe in drugs for the masses. To each, according to their needs, from me, who owns the whole stash."
I remember reading an early edition of Psychology Today, in which some noted psychologist said, "We have the drugs, we can make people feel any way we want them to feel. What society needs to do, is to decide how we want people to feel?" That was in the 1970s, later, after the events in Wisdom's Maw set the table for this pharmacological feast. The underlying plot of this story is that these Captains, Generals, Admirals, Doctors, all philosopher kings and agents of the government, created the 1960s with their drugs.
And thus, we come to the overriding theme of power. Each character attempts to find empowerment, by following the admonition to 'do your own thing.' This search for power is played out in many way, both great and small. There is Hunter Thompson riding with the Hell's Angels-- they have their Harley's, he has a Triumph. Who has the more powerful motorcycle? Neal Cassady broadcasts, his power in his voice, his ideas and the manic speed of his energy. Both the Captain and Franklin exercise power, by tipping vials of tasteless liquid onto the tongues of strangers. They are all searching for....
Here, from Perry Lane to the Sierra Nevadas, the Weathermen show which way the wind blows. Many of those with much power, are willing to destroy in order to maintain their power--the ultimate powers: murder and Acid. A tennis pro is killed, to facilitate sexual favors from his widow. Soon, a president is ambushed. Inevitably, the fantasy explodes in 'bad trips,' with bodies sent flying off rooftops and through plate glass windows. Time has come to burn some kharma.
And so in the end, the bottom line comes down to personal loyalty, and mixing duty with human responsibility. Extended family values, if you will. Captain Hubbard turns to a friend, a well-known mobster, who stands by him. Each of the actors, one by one, come to completion, rising or falling, dying or surviving, in this highly complex literary novel history. And Franklin Moore, himself, hero and convict, returns home to his roots and family. There he faces loss and change, synonymous with survivors of the 60s, or any other era.
Besides entertaining us with this adventure, the author also passes along a message, for a new generation. It is nothing new, in fact quite ancient. Similar to the way Kurt Vonnegut put it, (paraphrasing) 'be kind to each other, dammit.' The Beatles sang it as 'all you need is love.' Elvis Costello's version was 'what's so funny about peace, love and understanding.' These days, Sheryl Crow sings, 'love is a good thing.'
All of which is to say, Wisdom's Maw is ultimately about good and evil. Like life, it is very simple, and impossibly complex. Todd Brendan Fahey combines realism, and reality, with fantasy, speculation, and good old fashioned story telling. Most important of all, it is a good read.
-- Reviewed by Tom Harper
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