On a fall afternoon in 1988, Jon Sarkin, a 35-year-old Massachusetts chiropractor, was happily playing the eighth hole on a local golf course when he felt something “twist” in his brain. Three days later he began to hear a high-pitched screech, a siren that only grew louder with the passing weeks. Doctors shrugged; a brain scan suggested a vague abnormality near a nerve at the base of the brain that controls hearing and balance.
After he felt a “twist” in his brain, Jon Sarkin had surgery, and then a major stroke. He began making art like “Across the Sun.”
Jon Sarkin’s “Kerouac.”
Eight months later, driven to distraction by the unceasing noise, Dr. Sarkin underwent a controversial operation to “decompress” the small vessels surrounding the nerve. The day after surgery — having woken up long enough to report that the noise had indeed stopped — he was rushed back to the operating room with a major stroke.
He didn’t survive, not really, but he did live and slowly came to thrive, and on that tangled paradox Amy Ellis Nutt builds a tale.
Ms. Nutt, a staff writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her detailed account of a shipwreck off the Jersey Shore. Now she has turned to a medical shipwreck in the person of Dr. Sarkin, whose story is both Hollywood-simple (Tom Cruise has, in fact, expressed interest) and dauntingly complex.
The Jon Sarkin who emerged from the hospital months after his stroke bore little resemblance to his prior self. He was physically delicate and walked with a cane, but that was the least of it. His personality had morphed into a difficult teenager’s: self-centered, unreliable, obsessive. Bored, he began to doodle one day shortly after he returned home.
Two decades later he is still doodling, but now as a full-fledged artist of some renown, having sold small drawings to publications like The New York Times Magazine and large pieces to private collectors for thousands of dollars.
In this tripartite story of brain, art and family life (Dr. Sarkin is married and the father of three children, two born after his stroke), Ms. Nutt manages to ace the first part and come up surprisingly short in the other two.
We never do get the complete technical information on the extent of Dr. Sarkin’s brain damage, but apparently it involved most of the left side of his cerebellum (home of balance and sensory integration) and parts of the left cerebral hemisphere, where, in a right-handed person, most of the brain’s executive and analytic functions live. Dr. Sarkin’s right brain, chock-full of instinct and loose association, was left intact and more or less took over. Dr. Sarkin now draws constantly and obsessively, working on multiple pieces at once. He writes with the same rhythm, enthusiastically drafting long, garbled poems and firing off dozens of disjointed e-mails to a single recipient in the course of a day. His thoughts are scattered and tangential, his behavior unpredictable.
Dr. Sarkin’s difficulties give Ms. Nutt a platform for a freewheeling, admirably accessible discussion of how the brain works and how it survives damage. Her subjects range from Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railroad worker whose skull was shattered by an iron spike, to autistic savants, to many others whose injuries have replaced a former self with a different version.
Ms. Nutt has an advanced degree in philosophy, which serves her well in these far regions of neuroscience, where medical detail yields to the big questions of personality and personhood, mind and soul.
But for the more concrete parts of Dr. Sarkin’s story, perplexing narrative and publishing missteps manage to obscure the landscape effectively enough that the reader is sorely tempted to head elsewhere. (And there are quite a few other places to go: Dr. Sarkin has a substantial media presence, with radio interviews, magazine profiles and a segment in “Medical Mysteries” on ABC, among others.)
Those would be the sources to tap for such basics as what Dr. Sarkin looks like, what he sounds like, and how it feels to be around him. Ms. Nutt’s readers will have absolutely no idea, for her book is narrated from his and his wife’s perspective alone, in the fatuous, uncritical tones of a celebrity pseudomemoir.
That Dr. Sarkin deserves a sharper focus can be surmised from the contrast between Ms. Nutt’s effusions (“He was finding the edges of himself, filling in, at long last, the barren landscape of his bruised soul”) and Dr. Sarkin’s own response to a fan who asked him what his art meant. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “You want meaning? Go get The Wall Street Journal.”
And what about Dr. Sarkin’s artwork? Is it any good? Would the reader like it? There is no way to tell from this book, despite some valiant descriptions of line drawings and giant, thickly layered collages, because it contains, incredibly, not a single reproduction, and even the colorful jacket is not Dr. Sarkin’s design.
A book reviewer is charged with producing a review of the book alone, even if it shows irritating signs of turning into a giant TV listing. And so this reviewer, ever dutiful, finished her assignment up to this very paragraph, and then could not stand it one more minute.
Off she went to Dr. Sarkin’s Web site, where a selection of his work is on display. Perusing it was like ripping off a blindfold: Suddenly she saw what all that verbiage was about. And that, sadly, should not be the bottom line on any book.
SHADOWS BRIGHT AS GLASS
The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey From Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph. By Amy Ellis Nutt. Free Press. 272 pages. $26.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 3, 2011
A book review on Tuesday of “Shadows Bright as Glass,” by Amy Ellis Nutt, about Jon Sarkin, a chiropractor who became an artist after a brain operation that led to a major stroke, misstated the timing of the births of Dr. Sarkin’s three children. Two of them were born after his stroke, not all of them. And the article incorrectly described the narrative viewpoint of the book. It is told from the perspective of Dr. Sarkin and his wife, not from his perspective alone.
Read the article here