Life in rhythm and off the record: a review of Pharmacology

I love Goodreads. Not only does the site make it super easy to catalog and review your books, but you can also connect with authors and other readers, join groups, and mark books to read.

That last feature is actually what led to this message in my inbox:

Hi Stephanie. Noticed that you put Pharmacology on your “To Read” list. Hope you enjoy the journey. Thanks for allowing Sarah Striker into your life. -CH

Which caused me to go on and bump Pharmacology up a notch on my wishlist … which then made me realize I could read it for just a few dollars on my Kindle. Viola! That’s how books are sold, baby.

Now on to the review.

Then, I understood that family exists inside of you regardless of your location on the planet.

Pharmacology is an interesting breed of book. In one big pot it melts together music, gay and lesbianism, joblessness, and biggest of all, drugs and the world we live in—how it’s changed and continues to change, carried as we are on the currents of life.

The novel follows Sarah Striker, a girl who’s anything but brittle and knows the value of money and will do anything she can to get her hands on it. Her cause isn’t a selfish one, though. Her father is diagnosed with cancer, likely an adverse effect from his depression medication, and the insurance won’t cover what was warned about in the fine print. As the bills begin to pile, Sarah leaves home for San Francisco, rooming with heroin addicts who steal her socks, eat her cereal, and sell her belongings as they try to drag her down into their dark and seedy world of vampire fetishes and sex dungeons.

Sarah won’t have any of it. She survives on Ramen noodles and sends money home each month to “Moms” and “Pops,” taking odd jobs to make ends meet. Pharmacology is half a coming-of-age story and half a larger commentary on the corrupt pharmaceutical industry and the submergence of drugs in our culture. When Sarah finally accepts an insidious invite to create ads and design strategies to convince people that disorders like ADD are real and morbidly profitable, she’s sucked into the very world she abhors and criticizes in her underground zine, Luddite. She struggles to expose the truth in the name of her dying father and a dwindling society that’s being overturned from print into the digital information age, but she’s also rocked by the throes of soul-searching and identity—as the money gets better, her Dad gets sicker, and drugs pin her (and the reader) down from all sides, from the California streets to the big companies staffed with confused kids turned corporate zombies.

Author Christopher Herz realizes Sarah through a distinctive voice and well-written prose that, in its many attempts at communicating wisdom about the ups and downs of life, fails and succeeds in alternation. Sometimes what Herz writes rings painfully true, while other times his words seem to miss their mark by an inch. Lines like these were only weakly manifested in the text and failed to feel wholly graspable:

You need to be careful of people who tell you that adventure exists at the next turn—because it turns out that they are not really walking into a story, but running away from a history that chases them throughout time.

While ones like these could be felt down to the very bones of the book:

It’s like that, I think. Only a few stick with you down the entire way because on that path, there are so many missteps and falls that cause deep wounds and lasting scars, most people shy away when the pain starts. It’s the ones who walk with you through it all that allow you to understand love.

There’s no doubt that Herz has a lovely handle on imagery when he wants to, shaping it into something psychedelic …

Stars (or birds) were flash-bulbs from the photographers.

… or something authentic:

Dishes slapping down on the tables are rattling like the train that used to come through Kansas City before moving across the rest of the country.

I have to wonder about the deeper implications, though. The novel ends beautifully but feels ironic throughout: Sarah not only contributes to the industry she hopes to topple, but she sells drugs to junkies and experiments with them herself. Is one less destructive than the other? Or are drugs merely inescapable—one form moving into the space of another’s absence?

Pharmacology puts up a good fight but just doesn’t reach its nirvana, and its sub-cultural idiosyncrasies may prove difficult for many readers to penetrate.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from the book, aside from the one at the top:

‘But I don’t write what’s happening. I am what’s happening. Besides, you already have what you need. You’ve been watching it all. That’s the kind of person you are. That’s your drug. Intake.’

About Christopher Herz.

2 thoughts on “Life in rhythm and off the record: a review of Pharmacology”

  1. I had a sample of this sent to my Kindle after your previous post that highlighted it. I loved it. After reading your review, I think I’m really gonna love it. That’s how books are sold! :)

    I think I already said this once before, but I. Love. Your. Writing.

    Thanks for this Stephanie!



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