Book review: Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley

Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John BrinkleyCharlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley by Pope Brock
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you ever planned on reading a book on goat testicles, it should probably be this one. It tells the story of John Brinkley, a master manipulator who made millions from the mania for manually mixing your own tired testicles with the most succulent slices of goat gonad for the bedroom-blastin’ revivification of your lacking lovelife, ladies and lethargic Lotharios!

Basically, the book is the less effective surgical version of this:

Brinkley’s story is a proper rags-to-riches tale, built on the back of a lot of nutsacks and a cavalier disregard for the health of his patients. A con-man through-and-through, the book follows him all the way up… and down, thanks to his nemesis Morris Fishbein of the AMA. It’s really a Holmes-and-Moriarty affair, where truth and advertising wrestle for the bucks of those with nowhere else to go. There’s a lot of legal wrangling, false degrees, flirtations with Nazism and enough broadcasting wattage to blow people off the map in fifteen countries.

Brock writes engagingly on the topic, with obvious bemusement. There’s enough transcript and quotation in the work to assure us the work’s well researched, but not enough to bog down in stultifying clerkdom. (Also, the author’s first name is “Pope”, which seems to fit nicely with the razzle-dazzle surrounds.) The age – a freewheeling time, medically speaking – is as well-evoked as is the Kellogg sanitorium in Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. The horrors of some of the treatment offered are best encapsulated in a quoted newspaper headline: The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.

You can imagine the rest. The level of trust placed in hucksters is absolutely terrifying. Although I must admit, the picture of the electric hair-growing fez is pretty boss.

Is it a guilty pleasure? Certainly. But there’s a lot to be learned here. For example, did you know medical negligence didn’t result in any US jailings until 1964? Or that it wasn’t until 1976 that quack gadgetry was officially banned? The fears preyed upon then are still with us, though, as Brock points out in the concluding chapter: we’re as beholden to the quick fix today as ever we were.

By book’s end, everything’s tied (sutured?) together nicely. Brinkley ends dead, his wife ends up with young studs, the world’s a little more watchful for chicanery (though not much), and the effect of the Doctor’s broadcasting stronghold in Mexico on popular music (Hillbilly, including the Carter family during his time, then blues and rock afterwards) is traced, all the way to ZZ Top.

It’s a wild ride, but I’m sure I can find a potion here to offset any queasiness. Right this way, ladies and gents!

(My Goodreads profile is here.)

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