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Onyx reviews: On a Beam of Light by Gene Brewer

If you've seen trailers for the movie K-PAX, then you may already be familiar with "prot." Human in most respects, prot (rhymes with 'goat') claims to come from planet K-PAX, a place where faster-than-light travel is routine, there is no war, no religion, no money and no love.

Found disoriented in Grand Central Station five years ago, prot was transferred to the Manhattan Psychiatric Institute for examination. When he supposedly returned to K-PAX a few weeks later, his host body, that of earthling Robert Porter, collapsed into a catatonic state.

Therapist Gene Brewer (the author and his main character share the same name) believes Robert suffers from multiple personality disorder, using prot to face a world he can't handle on his own. During prot's first visit, Brewer established that the alien personality manifested only during traumatic times in Robert's life—such as when his father died or when his wife and young daughter were murdered. Prot is an amazingly well constructed secondary personality—there is never any hesitation when Brewer questions him about intricate details of life on K-PAX.

As promised, prot has returned, right on schedule, sliding into Robert on a beam of light, or so he says. Brewer picks up Robert's treatment where they left off a half-decade earlier, sending prot and, vicariously, Robert into hypnotic trances to explore Robert's formative years. Brewer is convinced that some early hidden traumas caused Robert to create his alien alter ego.

As he digs into Robert's psyche, Brewer finds other personalities. There's Paul, the designated lover, created to handle Robert's phobia of sexual intimacy, and Harry, the designated hitter, who represents Robert's violent side. Robert, who is aware of prot, has no knowledge of these other personalities.

This is all well and good from a clinical point of view. But it doesn't explain why prot seems to know more about astrophysics than specialists in the field, that he apparently can communicate with animals, that he does a better job treating the other inmate's problems than the psychiatric staff, and that he seems to be able to vanish in the blink of an eye.

For this reason, you will find K-PAX and On a Beam of Light in the science fiction section of the bookstore. The books are treated in the same vein as Heinlein's Stranger from a Strange Land. However, readers are left sitting on a fence—is prot really an alien or is he concocted entirely by Robert?

Whatever your belief, On a Beam of Light is entertaining. Brewer's style is clear and crisp and his characters are amusing and well conceived. However, once you've seen even a preview of K-PAX with Spacey as prot, it will be impossible to visualize him any other way—he perfectly captures prot's intelligence, opinionated, acerbic manner and wit.

The other patients in the hospital have an amazing array of psychological dysfunctions, including a transvestite male who believes he's pregnant, the requisite guy who thinks he's Christ, a schizophrenic who communicates in an intricate code language and a man whose goal in life is to fly. By the end of the book, prot will have had some impact on each of these characters, finding unique solutions to help them cope with their maladies on some level. Many believe prot will take them back to K-PAX with him when he returns.

While a sequel (the book begins with Session Seventeen of Robert's therapy), a brief prolog brings readers who missed "K-PAX" up to speed, so it's not absolutely necessary—though recommended—to read the original book first.

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