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In this thriller, the patients lose patience

In 'Patient 002,' Floyd Skloot introduces readers to a colorful group of people participating in a study of a new drug. In "Patient 002," Floyd Skloot introduces readers to a colorful group of people participating in a study of a new drug.

Patient 002, By Floyd Skloot, Rager, 288 pp., $19.95

"Patient 002 " is a lighthearted, fast-paced, and at times absurdist medical thriller that looks askance at conventional medicine and embraces holistic healing. Author Floyd Skloot has a highly personal relationship with severe illness, which he described in his award-winning memoir, "In the Shadow of Memory."

In his fourth novel , Skloot introduces us to a plucky, colorful group of patients participating in a double-blind study of a new drug at an Oregon medical school. Skloot's novel is part critique of conventional medicine, part love story, part mystery, part heist caper, and part New Age comedy.

When we first meet patient 002, Sam Kiehl , he's dozing on a waiting-room recliner and barely able to function. He's living with "Herpes Virus VI," which makes him lethargic and forgetful. A former helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet, Sam is divorced and trying to maintain his tenuous relationship with his musician son, Andy. And while Sam is not responding well to the experimental drug (he may be receiving a placebo), his friend Tracy Marsh seems to be getting stronger. Tracy's a likable chatterbox who complains endlessly about her husband.

Early on, Skloot introduces us to the study's medical leader, Dr. Fong, and nurse Kate McCabe, who are caught between their obligations to the patients and their duties to the drug company, Physicians for Ethical Research, that's sponsoring the study. Sam, we learn, is also open to alternative healing methods, such as acupuncture, herbal medicines, and panchakarma massage. In fact, he falls in love with his massage therapist, Jessica.

Skloot needs a villain to fuel the plot, and that is (unsurprisingly) PER, which mysteriously halts the study and leaves the patients without recourse. After Tracy's once-vigorous health deteriorates, Sam concludes that something must be done. While he considers suing PER, he instead decides to steal the drug from the company's Seattle headquarters. Here's where some of the zanier elements of Skloot's narrative are introduced.

Sam decides the best way to steal the drug is to land a borrowed helicopter, piloted by him, on the roof of PER and send Tracy and another friend inside to steal the drug. Sam's new girlfriend, Jessica, besides being a therapist, also happens to be an expert computer hacker. She disables PER's security system. To practice his dormant piloting skills, Sam contacts an old friend in the Oregon State Police who lends him a helicopter for a warm-up. And Tracy is conveniently an experienced lock-picker. The whole heist episode has a wacky (and admittedly funny) "Ocean's Eleven" quality.

Pretty much every patient in the drug study knows about the heist beforehand, and even Sam's acupuncturist learns about it. "Part of me thinks you're absolutely crazy," he tells Sam. "But another part . . . thinks this is the most healing thing you could do." Readers may be left wondering whether law-enforcement authorities in the Pacific Northwest are oblivious to crimes against drug companies, because they seem to be the only people unaware of Sam's scheme.

In the end, the heist is beside the point. It is, in Skloot's hands, a way for the patients to take ownership of their own lives. Sam ultimately finds love and marries Jessica. She tells Sam about her belief that healing is a lifelong process involving body and spirit: "I believe [it's] really the search for balance. You don't have to be sick to go after it, Sam, everyone does."

If you don't mind the occasional doses of holistic medicine, then "Patient 002" may be a highly effective antidote for your reading blues.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Quincy.