John B. Olson,
(Bethany House, 2003)

Adrenaline is a doubly appropriate name for John B. Olson's first solo novel, for not only does adrenaline hold an integral place in the medical foundation of the plot, the novel itself rushes from first page to last at an adrenaline-pumping pace. The action gets a little repetitive from time to time, but it never slows down.

I have to admit that I did have a little trouble settling down into this fictional world of Olson's making. On the one hand, you have a modern-day medical thriller involving the search for a cure to a dread disease. On the other, you have a character haunted, either figuratively or literally (you don't know early on) by a mysterious and possibly quasi-human Dark Man, and the streets of this world are sometimes populated by almost surreal drug users of a slightly fantastic nature. Thus, the story resides somewhat uncomfortably in a modern, scientific setting; perhaps this was intentional on the part of the author -- it did, after all, force me to think more deeply about these characters and the story unfolding before my eager eyes.

James Parker is a much-heralded graduate student in biochemistry. He is desperately seeking a cure for muscular dystrophy, a disease both he and his sister suffer from. Already confined to a wheelchair, James figures he has about four years left to fight, but his sister Jenny is already in the final throes of the disease. Finally, James seems to be on the brink of a breakthrough, as a certain chemical derivative of adrenaline has induced motion in his MD-afflicted test mice. In the throes of hopeful joy, he heroically barrels into a crowd of Glass-heads (drug addicts) threatening a young woman outside the chemistry building, and the mysterious character of Darcy Williams enters his life. Darcy is a difficult character to decipher early on; she is incredibly paranoid, seeing agents of a mysterious Dark Man all around her, refusing to let anyone know where she lives, and keeping all manner of secrets from those who would befriend her. She begins to help Parker with his experiments, bringing along, somewhat reluctantly, a young suitor of hers named Jason. There is a lot of romantic tension between Parker and Darcy from the beginning, one that builds into a lot of "Does he like me? Does she like me?" material -- almost too much, actually.

Confident that he has discovered a cure but knowing his sister Jenny won't live long enough to benefit from it as it plods its way through years of testing and approval, James violates everything he knows is right and medically ethical and begins testing the drug on himself (despite the fact that the drug caused incidents of extreme aggression in his test mice). It has quite an effect on him, initially setting him on fire internally, causing spasms of immense agony and similar nasty side effects. It also, however, begins working. In short order, he regains the ability to walk; eventually, he acquires a degree of unnatural strength and agility. He also experiences disturbing nightmares and unsettling blackout periods, often waking up later in the unhealthiest of places and conditions. As the work proceeds, mysterious men begin following our heroes, destroying their labs, attacking them and seemingly going after the medical secret Parker seems to hold.

Although a lot of the action gets repetitive -- and one wonders where everybody else in Berkeley is all the time -- Olson makes it difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. Is it the obvious? Is it Darcy's Dark Man? What about the fictional professor Jason created in order to publicize the research, a scientist who seems rather well-known for a nonexistent person? The ultimate conclusion is surprisingly satisfying, although I just can't embrace a couple of the conclusions I'm apparently supposed to accept here.

James and Darcy are engaging characters you will be rooting for with great enthusiasm. On a few occasions, however, they do or say things that struck me as cliched or a bit overdrawn, reminding me that this is in fact a novel about people who don't really exist -- but such complaints on my part are really quite small. Olson has no trouble whatsoever in terms of pace, suspense and action. You have to stop and take a breath between chapters because Olson doesn't slow down for a second; he maintains the energy of this story all the way to the end, an accomplishment that is really quite remarkable.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 2 October 2004

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