Dr. Owen Lerner was not unhappy. In fact, he was quite satisfied. A healthy man in his early 50s, he had a lovely wife with a successful career of her own and three prospering children, twin boys in name colleges, and a loving daughter, an accomplished gymnast, in high school and living at home. But satisfied is banal as a state of mind when compared to a transcendent experience: The good doctor is electrically propelled by a bolt of lightning -- as he inserts a quarter into a parking meter in a beach town that could be anywhere -- into feeling, smelling and even tasting some sort of paradise. When you get to know bliss like that, who wants to go back to the mundane? Not Dr. Lerner, who sets forth to sustain his rapture -- to the chagrin of his family.
What's Toni, his loving and overwhelmed wife, to do? Owen is "burned, broken and batty." Like an ad for McDonald's, Owen however is basically saying "I'm lovin' it!" But for her, what he feels as divine she thinks of as daft. It is months before he can walk unattended, no less get the scramble out of his thinking and words. Owen develops an extraordinary obsession, turned compulsion, with grilling! Not a Weber kettle or gas grill in the backyard for him; he has built a fire pit ample enough to roast a pig or half a cow. He spends endless hours on the Internet mastering cooking woods (red oak, wild cherry, hickory, mesquite and aromatic grapevines, in case you suffer from the same disorder) and all forms of seasonings and rubs. He gets hold of a chicken coop, replete with chickens and a rooster. He walks around looking like a clown in spandex bicycle pants that cannot contain his expanding girth. The piece de resistance is when he gets a tattoo on his entire arm that replicates the burn pattern of the lightning, when that has faded away. Yet she is a dutiful wife who wants to stand by him in the many months she has been told it takes a person to recover from a lightning strike (if they recover). This is easier said than done.
Dr. Lerner questions his work and doubts the value of his practice, especially the medication cocktails he expertly prescribed for "his kids" who were disabled with ADHD, Asperger's and autism, OCD, PTSD, psychotic and other serious childhood psychiatric illnesses. He resumes work but only slowly, because of his lengthy physical recuperation and his doubts about his mental functioning. In his office, he wonders if his destiny is in a barbecue pit rather than in the pit of childhood mental disorders.
All this threatens a long and strong marriage and portends bankruptcy as Owen's income dwindles and his purchase of all things grilling (including hosting weekly neighborhood feasts) eats away at a budget already strained by the demands of an upper middle class lifestyle and two children in pricey schools.
Meanwhile, the children are not spared either. Brooke, the high school star, hooks up with the son of a Latin diplomat who exploits her innocence and abuses her. The younger twin, Rickie, at Duke, has been transformed yet in a way that has enabled him to emerge from his chrysalis but with an uncertain path ahead. The older twin, Will, at Penn, enters a depressive tailspin and explodes in a fit of rage that produces a darker storm than the one that struck his dad.
Yet it is son Will's catastrophe that is catalytic and turns the corner for the good doctor and his family. But it is a corner turned, which is different from turning around. Owen, like Rip Van Winkle, begins to truly awaken, not only from his post-lighting delirium but from the semi-sleep that was his life before he was struck. In a sustained, hilarious, tender and convincing conclusion to the journey she has taken the Lerners, and we readers, on, Mary Kay Zuravleff shows how we can never re-enter the same river in the same the water: The current (no pun intended) has produced new waters in the river of life.
Some readers will have seen The Descendants, a wonderful film about another family that is thrown for a loop by a crisis, namely the incipient death of the mother, who has secrets of her own. George Clooney starred and showed amazing range as an actor. I imagined Man ALIVE! as a movie and hope it gets its chance. I would cast Paul Giamatti as Dr. Lerner, though it could be Tom Hanks, who can play anyone very well it seems, or maybe Kevin Spacey or Albert Brooks. Toni Lerner, his wife, would be an actor's showcase for Helen Hunt (who in What Do Women Want? had a role as a love interest where lightning undid her beau's charm rather than ignited it). Or the role could go to Jodie Foster, who knows how to be aggrieved and convey long standing suffering. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is now old enough to play the daughter, Brooke. The boys, Ricky and Will, could be as dazzling a role as Armie Hammer had playing the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network: What an opportunity for some young actor! The scenes and dialogue jump off the pages of this novel.
Man ALIVE! is electric. Open its pages or plug in your Kindle. I hope you will be as charged by it as I was.
Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available, as is his even newer book (with Jay Neugeboren and Michael Friedman), The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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