Grade: 4.0 / 5.0
Bay Area author William Brewer’s debut novel “The Red Arrow” is the raw, tumultuous and gripping journey of a man plagued by suicidal depression and self deprecation who finds hope and healing in psychedelic mushroom treatment. Using first-person narration, Brewer plunges the reader into the perspective of his protagonist, jumping between past and present. This nonlinear timeline distinguishes Brewer’s narrative as a representation of life through thematic occurrences, which, in turn, resists Western narrative conceptions of “progress” and “creation” in favor of transformation and collective healing.
The novel begins towards the plot’s end, with the narrator reflecting, “I want to say, first of all, that I am happy. This was not always the case.” Although the novel is frustratingly vague at first, filling in the gaps as it goes along, its nonlinear form is necessarily hopeful. Even at the novel’s lowest points, when the narrator plans and begins to attempt suicide, the reader is assured that he will survive and heal.
Running throughout the narrative is the narrator’s present-day journey aboard a train bound for Modena, Italy. In this plot line, the narrator is seeking “the Physicist,” whose memoirs he is ghostwriting. The narrator will earn very little money from this endeavor, as he is writing it to repay his debt on a previous book he failed to complete. Thus, the central narrative is one of both forward movement and return. Critically, the narrator takes this job while he is still ill — before his “treatment” — because he does not wish to saddle his wife, Annie, with crippling debt should he kill himself.
Woven into this plot line, Brewer brings the reader back in time through the experiences that led to this moment. The novel groups these experiences thematically rather than linearly. As he reflects on the concept of time, the narrator explains this choice himself: “these layers, these structures, these illusions through which I could count away the torment, it is them I have to thank for my life.”
First, the novel explores the relationships that will keep the narrator alive: his relationship with an old friend, Anthony, and his wife, Annie. Anthony is the one who first tells the narrator about psychedelic mushroom treatment and urges him to look into it, while Annie encourages his writing and helps him apply to a Bay Area fellowship, which literally saves his life. The narrative emphasizes the importance of relationships throughout the novel, as the narrator’s two mentors — LD and Terry — give him life saving information on the psychedelic treatment.
Brewer also explores the traumatic experiences in the narrator’s life, and how they affect his future. Looming throughout the novel, the Great Monongahela River Chemical Spill of 1996 in West Virginia is an experience of trauma and loss that the narrator literally cannot explain. This event is what he was paid to write about, but he failed to deliver. The narrator reflects on this failure, and in turn, explains the novel’s nonlinear form: “The linearity felt like a lie, a sterilization of what I’d experienced, an implied order.”
The Physicist and “the treatment” also exist as vague but powerfully impactful concepts throughout the novel, not to be explored or explained until the very end. However, when the end comes, the novel suddenly comes together as one of collective experience of healing. Notably, the novel includes the narrator’s “treatment report,” which details his experience on five grams of psilocybin mushrooms: “I died many times that day. Many times. Maybe hundreds of times.” This treatment report is broken down into phases, detailing the visual, physical, spatial and auditory elements of the experience, along with their lesson. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Brewer explained the narrator’s experience with mental illness and psychedelic therapy is directly informed by his own experiences.
Overall, “The Red Arrow” is a powerful exploration of mental illness, collective healing and hope. Although its meandering storyline can at times be exasperating and confusing, and its protagonist’s grief crushing, these narrative elements are absolutely necessary to the truthfulness of the narrative. Thus, “The Red Arrow” is for all those who have been crushed by mental illness, who have experienced trauma, loss and pain. But it is also for those who have survived, and who have found — or who hope to find — healing and peace.