The clever book cover of intense blue eyes surrounded by biochemical formulae hints at the unusual subject matter of this debut novel by William Leibowitz, an exploration of the nature and uses of super intelligence.
Leibowitz, a long-time resident of Quogue and a practicing entertainment/media lawyer in New York specializing in intellectual property rights, somehow found time to do an immense amount of research in mathematics and science, particularly biochemistry. He integrates recent work in these disciplines to fashion an original story he refers to as a “cross-genre thriller.” Though overly long and filled with interesting details that don’t always advance the action, Miracle Man (Manifesto Media Group) proves absorbing, especially because in this pop-lit age of cynicism and violence, Leibowitz’s attractive loner protagonist, though a fanciful creation (he has an estimated I.Q. of well over 500), is extraordinarily likable—consistently principled, compassionate, self-aware—despite numerous reasons not to be. He’s a “miracle” man in more than one sense.
Dumped into a garbage bin as a newborn, he is found by a homeless man who cares for him briefly until a dedicated social worker prevails upon a loving couple to take him in as a foster child, their thirteenth. It’s clear by the age of three, however, that young Robert James Austin is no ordinary child, and when the Austins are finally told that Bobby’s genius is such that no charts can account for it, they reluctantly agree to have him raised in an atmosphere where he won’t be made to feel like a freak. Unfortunately, that atmosphere is the country’s premier research institution for the military-industrial-academic complex, where Bobby’s “gift” has attracted the government in its competitive bid for aerospace supremacy. Even more unfortunate, the foster parents die in a car accident, leaving young Robert even more alone with increasing night terrors and day trances (his most creative time). He has a hard time coping, until a psychiatrist with the Mayo Clinic who also has connections to the institute gets him a mentor who becomes a devoted father figure. Unfortunately, the mentor will die from pancreatic cancer when Bobby is a teen, but not before he urges Bobby to always do the right thing. Bobby will, even when the love of his life breaks his heart and it’s apparent that he’s making enemies.
That he winds up with 11 Nobel Prizes plus the equivalent Abel Award in mathematics is immaterial to him. His steadfast commitment is to rid the world of diseases that kill millions, a mission that makes him indeed miraculous, though a serious threat to venal, vicious, power-crazed pharmaceutical CEOs out there whose livelihood is imperiled by Bobby’s continual medical breakthroughs. With plot twists somewhat suspenseful and recoveries mostly heartwarming, the narrative turns into a psychological thriller, in that the miracle man wonders if he will be able to beat out his inner demons, a negative force of evil he believes, fatefully, will do him in. (Though Zoroastrian philosophy is not referenced here, the contest between good and evil, truth and falsehood, is at the core of Robert’s beliefs and figures prominently in the book’s denouement and theme.) Despite Leibowitz’s innovative conception, it’s regrettable that the writing is not stronger. He handles dialogue well and invests the various settings in the book with verisimilitude, but the overall third-person narration can at times seem stilted or trite: “Her laugh was followed by a smile that allowed her flawless teeth to gleam as her full lips parted playfully.” People “exit,” the pounding surf has a “relentless drone” and “the heady fragrance of the estate’s gardens” impart to the night air “an eroticism peculiar to the Caribbean.”
Still, one of the pleasures of reading is to be instructed as well as entertained, and in this regard, Miracle Man succeeds. Readers should be prompted to look up the American prodigy, William James Sidis (1898-1944), for example, or follow more closely accounts of the tens of billions of dollars that have already been spent in trying to find cures for various diseases. And to think again, in this age of increasing specialization and technology, of Einstein’s search for an integrative theory and corresponding mathematical language that might also help effect humane, practical applications.