“I’m Henry Farber, the psychiatrist. You will have heard my name, if only lately. The Great Man was found dead in my office in Providence, Rhode Island. That’s my couch he’s draped across in the photo, the one that ricocheted from device to device, delivering the news.” So opens Peter D. Kramer’s deftly written second novel, “Death of the Great Man: A Novel.” It’s a comic mystery, political satire, and fascinating case study.
What unfolds is Farber’s memoir, at his lawyer’s behest, of what led up to his predicament, which the lawyer shares on social media to help prove Farber’s innocence while he hides out in a remote cabin in the Maine woods.
We immediately recognize that there is nothing to miss about the Great Man — a pathological, narcissistic, autocratic egotist beyond measure who fully believes in his own magnificence. The Great Man revels in having destroyed democracy, ruled by terror, was responsible for deaths beyond counting, and crashed the economy. And that’s just the start. Kramer leaves little doubt as to the allusion to Donald Trump, writing, “The Great Man rigged the vote count. He stirred up mobs, coerced legislatures, and leaned on judges. He repeated absurdities until they gained currency. He commandeered the media. He called out armies.” While Kramer enlarges the Great Man’s personality to satiric proportions, the dystopian world that results in his regime is unnerving.
At the same time, Kramer adds levity, as in this evocative description: “When the Great Man set his chin on his chest, the mouth addressed me from within a landscape of folds and creases. I thought of Jabba the Hutt, the insatiable appetite … The Great Man was eating … Periodically, he gestured with a chicken taco, plashing me with lettuce shreds and salsa.” As Kramer says in a Five-Minute Book Bite interview (a collaboration between The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Islanders Write, and the Edgartown Bookstore) about the book, “Some of the fun was to out-Trump Trump.” In an email, Kramer wrote, “Much of the message of the book is in the atmosphere it creates. It is meant to evoke the oppressiveness and constant sense of threat of life under a Trump presidency — of course, in the book’s own way, comical and intimate and absurd. Henry Farber’s optimism in response in the face of this threat and oppression becomes personal, and points to a certain way to live in the face of a dystopian regime.”
Farber, who is known for treating paranoid men, is coerced through threats to his family to take on the Great Man, who is plagued with being unable to sleep. Throughout, Farber struggles with the ethics of his profession to remain neutral despite the horror of his patient, and works professionally toward the tyrant’s healing. Yet even breakthroughs prove dangerous. “The Great Man’s insight was all in the service of attacking others,” Farber writes.
What ensues is a fascinating perspective into the psychiatric process, as Farber narrates not just what occurs in his sessions with the Great Man, but his own self-analysis, both as a psychiatrist and personally, as he confronts some of the subtle realities of his relationship with his dead wife, whose presence serves as a moral center in the novel.
The conundrum underlying the entire story is what constitutes truth. There are outright lies, of course, told by the Great Man in the therapeutic sessions. His greatly abused wife is also not to be blindly trusted. She says to Farber after the Great Man’s death, “My marriage, my maintaining it, had an element of altruism. I might do good through him or prevent evil. I saw my husband as ruthless and conniving, but I did not foresee his wanton destructiveness … I am misrepresenting what I foresaw. I knew what he was. I was like one of those science-fiction characters who gets a premonition of a horrific scenario and sets out to avert it.”
But how can we even trust Farber’s own telling of the story? After all, he is known for having authored numerous psychiatric books in which he had to disguise the identity of his patients by altering not just their names but important details. “Imaginative translation has become a habit with me,” Farber admits. Kramer, himself a retired psychiatrist, authored, among his other books, “Listening to Prozac” and “Should You Leave?” in which he used the same approach when writing about his patients.
Kramer keeps us hanging as his various characters play out their possible roles in the Great Man’s eventual downfall. In addition to his wife, there is the Great Man’s henchman, the detestable Beelzebub; bodyguard Muscle; and others who add to the intrigue.
Kramer, who has Vineyard connections going back to the mid-1970s, when he worked with Island doctors as part of his medical training. He explained in the interview how he came to write “Death of the Great Man”: “When Donald Trump was elected, I really thought there would be a flowering of art, the way there was during the Vietnam War, that was focused on this very difficult social circumstance. I am surprised, five years later, to find that I am one of the few people who have focused in the arts on the problem of toxic populism in American culture. I thought I would be adding a small tile to a large mosaic and that my job is to look at the problem through the lens of a clinician.”
With its twists and turns, from page one, “Death of the Great Man” is a thinking reader’s book, with intelligent and thoroughly engrossing writing that keeps you guessing — and turning pages — until the very end.
“Death of the Great Man,” by Peter D. Kramer. Kramer will be signing books at the Edgartown Bookstore on Friday, June 9, from 2 to 4 pm. Author talks at the West Tisbury library, Thursday, July 6, at 4 pm, and at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Friday, August 11, at 7 pm. The book is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes.