Genetic Grabber

Tucsonan Jonathan Lowe spins a personable and entertaining--if a bit outrageous--mystery tale

If warm sunshine, clean mud and fresh slop could put a pig in heaven, just where might the dank dark, bloody puddles and a taste for a dead farmer's eyeballs land one? Add to that picture one fumbling research geek and the frenzied squeals and clattering of dozens of famished, frenzied hogs, and you have to figure there's a little Dante-esque porcine punishment being exacted in this novel.

Describing this scene is not going to ruin Geezer for the reader--there remains plenty more to happen to our hapless pharmaceutical biologist than hog hell--but it is representative of the slightly outrageous nature of this gene-alteration thriller with whiffs of biblical allegory.

Geezer opens with the unlikely situation of a gorgeous supermodel type coming on to--and then going home with--an unassuming research biologist type, Alan Dyson. Her subsequently taking off with Dyson's cash and bomber jacket would appear to be his price of admission, until he discovers that she has also tampered with his home computer. When he then reveals to another "supermodel" online that he is close to reproducing an eternal-youth gene, he's sealed his own fate.

Cyber playmate "Cindyboo" raids and then erases his home files. His office is found trashed. His gene project denied funding and now gone missing, he's transferred to Aspirin Substitute Development, and he has nothing to live for. Except tracking down the thief.

Carpool buddy/computer-whiz Darryl discovers that "Cindyboo" is a certain Walter Mills, recently moved to Zion, Iowa (pop. 166), so Dyson decides to take some vacation time in the heartland. There he meets another non-native Zionite, "Julie," living there under a witness-protection program. Together, they uncover and attempt to untangle a plot to use the populace of Zion as some form of lab rats.

Geezer was written by Tucsonan Jonathan Lowe, representing himself--like Dyson--as a bachelor, and bachelor insights abound in the novel. Generally, the book is entertaining. It may read like an action-movie script, but it deals sufficiently with ideas to go beyond being a plain shoot-'em-up or chase-'em-down.

Lowe draws central character Dyson as a likable guy--a lonely, balding, 39-year-old movie buff whose work is his life; he's innocent enough to brag a bit about his scientific work when he's chatting in a bar or online (and too naïve to note the "gotcha" aspects of Cindyboo's name). A comic in a dry, self-effacing way, he sees the world through signs of aging and the celluloid veil. (He thinks he looks like Michael Keaton; "Julie" resembles Madeleine Stowe in The Last of the Mohicans. Some critics might call that lazy characterization, but it's useful shorthand.)

The major theme of "playing God" presents itself with Dyson. His single-minded focus on his experiment sees only its benefits. His "Methuselah" gene would reduce the unsightly effects of aging (via the cosmetics business); it would produce long, healthy lives (via the pharmaceutical). Dyson has overlooked its malignant potential, including the economic and sociological effects of populations that don't die. He's blind to the power of its corruption or exploitation; clearly, others aren't. And friend Darryl plants a conspiracy seed with his suggestion that governments might be tempted to pervert Dyson's new discovery by reversing its effects.

Lowe's writing suits the genre. The character of Dyson is developed, but the novel's other characters are fairly stock (down to antagonist Cindyboo/"Walter Mills" looking like Hannibal Lector). The narrative is fast-paced and successfully unpredictable, though at times, Dyson's actions seem precipitous and unmotivated. One little twist that marries the film-buff motif to the good-vs.-evil motif actually finds Dyson playing the white-hat guy in a Western gunslinger showdown. No more implausible than other situations, the reader plays along. One plot premise that might nag, however, concerns phone service--the utilization of a simple cell phone might have considerably simplified Dyson and Julie's quest. Even rural Iowa's not as unplugged as Lowe suggests.

Quibbling aside, what's appealing about Geezer is Dyson, about whom we do come to care; his attitude; and the book's potential layers of meaning. While it offers entertainment without undue cognition, it also offers that little didactic experiment: In his attempt to alter and control Life, Man (tempted by Woman) releases Knowledge and Evil into the world, abrogating the responsibilities of Dominion over Animals in the process. The ensuing hellacious experience will either destroy or irreparably change Man, newly endowed with a sort of knowledge he had not sought.

But Lowe doesn't get heavy-handed. The action careers along; Dyson's sense of irony stays with him until the end; Lowe doesn't preach; and the rampaging pigs help make a PETA point about the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.