Michael Dahlie: “The Pharmacist from Jena”

12/14/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, January 2012.

Dahlie wastes no time in assuring us that this is not the standard tale of mild-mannered pharmacists: first, by setting the story in 1912; second, by making the narrator the pharmacist’s nephew, newly arrived from Stockholm (to Indiana); and third, by establishing a very solid foundation of crime and corruption within this trade: “The nature of my job, a junior pharmacist, required a license from Indiana’s Board of Health, and since the board had a system to monitor such things, my father paid to have forged a certificate of academic completion….” There are never any second thoughts; this is simply the way of life in America. Those who can legally supply cocaine (“my uncle was a passionate lover of cocaine”) under a medical guise, can rise swiftly in the social scene — regardless of the early-S&M deprivations he starts toying with. (He’s into electrical stimulation — a different sort of shock therapy — and the medicine he dispenses is the unorthodox kind: “I myself never took advantage of their condition, but my uncle often disappeared with them into the expansive back rooms he used for his offices, only to return half an hour later with a pleased look and a very relieved woman rushing past me with her medicines.” It’s a story, then, about users and addicts, and the fine line between freedom and dependence; as the uncle puts it, “Whatever your aunt hates, she always loves just as much.”

Being a thematic story, the result is a sometimes hard to follow. Our narrator is a passive observer throughout the first three-quarters; he’s bearing witness to a passel of unusual “lessons” from his uncle. In the first scenario, “A brothel owner owed my uncle money and this tamed bear was meant to serve as partial repayment while he raised other funds.” Unsurprisingly, the bear, trained or not, isn’t happy being locked up in our narrator’s room all day, and so the uncle is forced to put the bear down with a 16-gauge Kremling fowler. (This detail is important in that it takes a long time.) In the next sequence, we learn that the boy from Stockholm has befriended three other immigrants; he hangs out, dabbles with instruments, does cocaine, and generally womanizes at the Tarsas Magyar (Hungarian Social Club). Things change, however, when his pal Brynnar gets a little too serious with one of the higher-class women (her father’s “chairman of the city council in Hudson”). He loves her and wants to marry her, and she . . . wants to abort the baby she’s carrying, which may or may not be Brynnar’s. This being the ’20s, Sarah heads to her local drug-dealing pharmacist, and when Brynnar shows up with a knife to stop her, he winds up with a face full of sulfuric acid. Less than a day later, he’s committed suicide, which brings us just as unmomentously to the psychiatric “treatments” his uncle begins giving to a desperate man, Dr. Reimann. The man is, indeed, almost extraordinarily cured, but his celebratory binge leaves Sarah dead of a massive overdose, and when the feds investigate, the uncle offers his nephew up on a silver platter. These vignettes don’t have direct causation between them; they’re more just symptoms which hint at a systemic illness.

And so it goes that our protagonist manages to escape the law — which is itself not above stopping off for some last-minute free opium — and to knock off his uncle in the same fashion as he once saw the man wound, blind, and eventually kill a bear. There are echoes, too, of Brynnar’s blinding, to say nothing of the idea of the nephew putting his own “trained animal” down, an act re-enforced by his return to Stockholm, and his father’s easy forgiveness: “My father leaned forward, put his hand on my shoulder, and said I had done the only thing I could.” And ultimately, as hinted at by the title’s reference to the narrator’s forged license from Jena, and explained by the final lines (in which the nephew prepares to open his own pharmacy; I’m still wondering about his legitimate experience), this story is all about how we become the people and take up the careers that we do. It’s an unusual origin story, in that we still know so little, the tale goes nowhere from here, and the lurid details therefore add nothing to the journey. It’s probably not the best way to read fiction, but when you’re reading a short a day, then when in doubt, simply move on.

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