The novel begins with single mom Eleanor Garrison giving birth to her son, Jimmy, who she intends to raise as a “test tube baby”—nothing but education and studying and hard work for him, so that he can grow up to be a genius. The experiment is a success, and Jimmy grows up to be a medical wunderkind! A chemist who has also made great discoveries in genetics and cancer research and performs open-heart surgery on a child badly injured in an accident. But what has the newspapers all abuzz is Jimmy’s latest explorations into in vitro fertilization. Needing a break, Jimmy takes his first drink of alcohol, winds up taking the ferry from New York City to Jersey where he meets Peggy, a sex worker, at Palisades Amusement Park, and has sex for the first time. The experience awakens a hidden Mr. Hyde within his Dr. Jekyll (to borrow an apt analogy from the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction).
Back home, Jimmy can’t focus on work, and he’s lost interest in good-girl Pat. “Why didn’t she stand up to his face and tell him she loved him—or make up her mind to forget the walking test tube?” Pat muses, frustrated. “Test tube? She detested the two words which shot a chill up her spine. She hated everything they stood for. He wasn’t human. He was a machine.”
Jimmy’s life gets an unexpected dose of excitement when he takes Pat to a dance, which is held up by a pair of low-level hoods, con artist Augie and punch-drunk boxer Punchy. Jimmy attacks the gunmen and saves the day. But when Augie and Punchy see Jimmy’s picture in the paper, they strike up an unexpected friendship with the scientist. Jimmy loves the allure of the criminal life, and is slowly sucked in, to the point where he orchestrates an elaborate armored car robbery plan. Threatening the heist is Peggy’s jealousy over how much time her boyfriend Augie is spending with Jimmy, who has also lost interest in her.
In a way, Test Tube Baby feels like multiple books in one. Part Horatio Alger, part W.R. Burnett, part Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, part social melodrama, part medical drama, and part romance. My favorite bits were about Augie and Punchy, and a reporter named Brassy Nichols who also sees Peggy. These are the characters who has the most Fuller flavor, and he writes them with a verve that revitalizes the book and really gets it going. Brassy would be right at home in Park Row, and Augie and Punchy would fit in with the denizens of Pickup on South Street (albeit they are rendered a little more comically here). These types seem so intimate, as though Fuller had known such people and was drawing from real life. These characters also have a humor and depth that Jimmy and Pat lack. The romance angle is a bit conventional, but it is the criminal and journalistic elements that give the book Fuller’s unique touch.
Overall, I enjoyed Test Tube Baby, and while it is clearly the work of a young writer still honing his skills, there are flashes of Fuller’s artistic genius, and it was a joy to see them in such a nascent state.
Cover: Royal Books