BookBrowse Reviews Charlatan by Pope Brock

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America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

by Pope Brock

Charlatan by Pope Brock X
Charlatan by Pope Brock
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2008, 336 pages
    Jan 2009, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Charlatan goes down in a nice, quick gulp with an altogether pleasing sensation

A fake doctor who slices off goat testicles and inserts them into the scrotums of men looking to restore their desiccated virility? A fake doctor who grows fabulously wealthy from the hordes lined up outside his door, despite the fact that his surgery causes blood poisoning, loss of limbs, and even death? Preposterous! If Charlatan were a novel, it would be a satire. If it were a play, it would be a farce. But it is history, and we must ruefully own up to it as our legacy. If we try to tell ourselves that nowadays we are far too enlightened to succumb to such quackery, we are as fraudulent as the "surgical swami" himself. After all, how different are Botox injections, the same toxin that causes botulism, from goat glands? John Brinkley's story promises to tell us much about the modern confection of advanced knowingness and undaunted gullibility, not to mention our deep investment in eternal youth.

Pope Brock opens up Brinkley's life with the same gusto with which Brinkley opened up his patients. Brinkley's work dripped with blood; Brock's work drips with irony. He is fully alive to the absurdities and serendipities of his story. Brinkley's life work came to him one day when a woebegone farmer pleaded for a cure to his impotence. Brinkley admitted that he had no cure and glumly the two men stared out the window to the farm beyond. "Too bad I don't have billy-goat nuts," the farmer mused. Flash forward to the farmer's wife giving birth to a strapping baby boy—named Billy. Thousands of operations later and "richer than a créme brûlée," Brinkley found himself hounded by Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, for advertising his medical services, the only crime for which the AMA could indict him. For Brinkley, there was only one thing to do: shout louder. He established his own radio station so he could proclaim the good word about goat glands far and wide, and in the process he invented much of the AM format we know today and helped refine what we know as public relations. Brock notes dryly, "For some time Brinkley had been noticing the resemblance between himself and the Son of God." Brinkley mixed self-advertising with religious proselytizing, somehow managing not to collapse under the contradiction of being "the most unusual scientist-fundamentalist in the whole world." As his radio audience grew, Brinkley took the logical next step—he ran for governor, twice, and almost won. The larger his successes, the more inevitable became a showdown with Fishbein, and the book ends with a courtroom drama at which both men staked their careers.

From Sigmund Freud to H.L. Mencken, Brinkley's showmanship branched into many streams of popular culture, and Brock frequently departs from the main plot to explore little eddies such as William Butler Yeats' "ligation of the vas"—a vasectomy—which he underwent in the hopes of increased sexual prowess, or the start that Brinkley's radio station gave to "The Original Carter Family" and the dramatic night that Sara Carter, singing next to her husband, A.P., dedicated a song to her lover in California in the hopes that he was listening to the broadcast and would come rescue her. Along the way, Brock backlights a stubborn anti-scientific mindset in American culture, from the early nineteenth century when the Jacksonian celebration of the common man led to widespread suspicion of doctors and their elite education, to the early twentieth century when scientific advancements such as sonar and quantum physics were as incredible as the claims made by charlatans. He points out, "Strapping a metal contraption on one's head to cure stuffy nose, drinking radium as a cure for cancer, it all fit with the logic of modern life."

Though he is unafraid of a good clichè, Brock's sardonic style mostly serves his subject well. He is an engaging raconteur who unfurls his narrative with fleet confidence. But his tone raises a larger question: how are we readers supposed to feel toward Brinkley? Brock renders him as a lovable quack, someone we can't help but admire for his moxie. He even goes so far as to argue that "great blunderers like these have a place in the history of science. Wrong, they helped point the way for others to be right. They fought as bravely for error as more fortunate prophets fought for the truth. In science, as in love, it is sometimes extraordinarily hard to draw the line between faith and folly." But it's worth pointing out (as Brock glancingly does at the end) that the man was essentially a serial killer with a body count well into the dozens. Might a more critical or analytical viewpoint have revealed a deeper dimension to Brinkley's vastly entertaining story?

Alas, the subtitle's promise to explore—or even define—the Age of Flimflam goes unfulfilled. By remaining so fully under the sway of Brinkley's charismatic personality, Brock fails to probe the psychology of Brinkley's patients, thus bypassing the opportunity to generate a larger theory about the persistence of snake oil in an era of scientific progress. Charlatan thus bears a certain similarity to the nostrums peddled by quacks like Brinkley: it does nothing to cure the disease—unremitting gullibility—for which it is prescribed, but it goes down in a nice, quick gulp with an altogether pleasing sensation.

Reviewed by Amy Reading

This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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