Darnton's 'Experiment': wildly cloning

August 29, 1999|By JIM ASHER | JIM ASHER,Sun Staff

"The Experiment," by John Darnton. Dutton. 416 pages. $24.95.

My suggestion is simple: forget what you think you know and dive into John Darnton's newest book, "The Experiment." It's a barnburner.

Darnton concocts a fast-paced story, set in the present, that pulls its facts from the intricate work of geneticists. At its core, it is about the pursuit of a fountain of youth. This magic potion is not some liquid elixir but rather the miraculous magic of cloning.

For the past three decades, influential Americans have been cloning their exact likenesses on Crab Island off the Georgia coast. These duplicate senators, FBI agents and businessmen were designed to be used as replacement parts. A perfectly matched kidney here, a liver there. Crab Island is like Pep Boys -- wear out a part and get a new one.

The one thing these researchers forget, of course, is the human spirit. You can clone the pieces but you still have to deal with the whole man.

Therein is the book's action.

Two duplicates suspect their island home is not all Paradise as one by one of their lot disappears. When one of the couple dies, the other escapes the island and begins his pursuit of his double.

While Darnton's style keeps you glued to the book, for those who refuse to take my advice and continue to think hard as they read this novel, there is much to moan about. In short, preposterous serendipity plays too large a role in Darnton's work.

Jude Harley, a journalist, is researching a story on odd killings when he gets an assignment that causes him to interview Tizzie Tierney, a doctor studying identical twins. After several twists, they become an item.

The Crab Island clone, Skyler, had once loved Julia, the one whose death propels him to escape.

It turns out, however, that Skyler and Julia are Jude's and Tizzie's clones. Jude's and Tizzie's parents ordered the cloning, but never told their natural offspring.

All these people -- Skyler, Jude and Tizzie -- meet despite wide geographic separation and learn the secrets of their relationships, of the cloning and of a national conspiracy to keep it secret. Ultimately, they solve the case.

Lightning hits twice more frequently.

Oddly, Darnton, whose own journalistic credentials are impressive -- the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a foreign correspondent -- tries to offer proof that his "Experiment" is possible.

Conceivably it is, I suppose, in the latter days of the 20th century. But impossible in the early 1970s when The Experiment would have been devised by the mad scientist, Dr. Rincon.

As a medical writer, I covered the recombinant DNA developments in the early Seventies. Those were the dark ages of genetics. A big deal then was merely identifying a strand of DNA. A Darntonesque experiment never happened. Never could.

My final quibble with the book is a seemingly unending section on the technique of the cloning itself. Darnton seeks to impress us with his research. It is overdone. Anyone who has stuck with the book doesn't much care how the cloning was accomplished. The reader already buys the notion that it was.

Darnton's mystery is full of suspense and some fine writing. I liked it. I really wish the book were more believable.

James Asher is city editor at The Sun, and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for more than 25 years.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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