Pale Highway is a novel that talks about such diverse themes as Alzheimer’s, nursing homes, the nature of the immune system, autopoiesis, and what it means to be human. But it’s also a novel that centers around the mind of one particularly strange human being, an introverted scientist by the name of Gabriel Schist.
In Gabriel, we find a man with enormous personal strengths — but many equally enormous flaws that existed even before the day he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Without Gabriel Schist, there is no Pale Highway. And one of the things we quickly learn, as we embark on this journey with Gabriel, is that he’s not a narrator we can particularly trust: the state of his dementia is in constant decline. As the story progresses, becomes less and less clear what is reality, and what is imagined.
To that end, in assessing his person, our only hope is to connect the dots, and hope that we’re getting them right.
When we first meet Gabriel at the start of the book, we witness a man whose greatest achievements appear to be long behind him.
Gabriel is the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of a vaccine that changed the world. But Alzheimer’s disease has stripped him of his dignity, and he is spending his last few years in a nursing home known as Bright New Day, where he is constantly treated with sympathy, condescension, and amusement. His once-brilliant mind is tearing itself to pieces, as all of the memories in his life—all of the achievements that he used to define himself—are fading from him, leaving him as little more than a confused old man with a cane.
He struggles to button shirts. He wets the bed. He’s not the same man he once was, and he knows it. Even worse, he knows that it’s only going to get worse from here on out.
This would be tragic enough, but as we delve deeper into Gabriel’s past, an even muddier truth reveals itself: even before Alzheimer’s stole his memories, Gabriel was a man who failed at many things in his life — things he never quite forgave himself for.
On the surface, Gabriel Schist would seem to be a success story. A child prodigy who predicted HIV decades before it existed, Gabriel was a gifted, brilliant figure fueled a stubborn drive for results, who spent his entire life creating a vaccine that saved countless lives, and rightfully won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. Gabriel’s inspirational life story is one that would go on to inspire countless youth, including his future caregiver Harry Brenton.
But Gabriel’s greatest gift, his brilliant mind, was also his greatest weakness.
Gabriel was indeed a child prodigy, but he faced the same struggles that many young geniuses face: a profound sense of isolation. Introverted, studious, and focused only on his passion for the immune system to the exclusion of schoolwork and games, Gabriel always felt like an outcast. Gabriel’s well-meaning parents struggled to connect with him, Gabriel didn’t connect to his classmates, and all of these ingredients brewed the perfect concoction for a future alcoholic.
And sure enough, an alcoholic is what Gabriel became. His studies were mocked by the scientific community, and shut down at every turn. His drinking increased, until it destroyed everything he loved. And this struggle against his own demons defined much of Gabriel’s life, until somehow he was able to turn it around.
And then, right as he sailed over the horizon line and finally found happiness, the Alzheimer’s fairy sprinkled her magic fairy dust on his brain, burning away all of the achievements he’d fought so hard for.
At the beginning of Pale Highway, Gabriel faces his greatest challenge yet: insignificance. He faces the stark reality of the nursing home system, a place where over a hundred people have been packed into tiny rooms, their every need taken care of, but knowing that the only escape will be the hand of death. For a man whose entire life revolved around his brain’s ability to perform complicated tasks, Bright New Day is the worst fate that Gabriel could ever have imagined.
But then on one bizarre night, just when Gabriel is at his lowest point, a slug crawls up to him—and it speaks.
As Bright New Day faces the advent of a terrifying new superbug referred to in whispers as “the Black Virus,” Gabriel will be forced to reckon with his flaws in one last ditch chance at saving the world again.
His past will come to haunt him. His future, and the future of everyone around him, will depend on his ability to beat the impossible odds stacked against him, as he faces a virus far more complex than anything he’s ever seen — a threat that is being covered up by the government, and leaving its victims paralyzed with black eyes and throbbing black veins. He stopped a virus before. Can he do it again?
Let’s hope so.