Richard Jones is a paranoid schizophrenic and recovering drug addict who also seems to be more than a tad bit obsessed with sex. That said, he actually comes off as a relatively likeable guy in Dan Martin's Journey Back, which seeks to explore the impact of schizophrenia and drug addiction. Yet Jones still can't save this debut novel.
When we first meet Jones, he leaves New York City and drives to San Francisco in 48 hours because "they knew where I was and how to find me." Once there, Jones changes his name to Mitch James and embarks on a new life. The story is told in chapters that alternate between Jones and James. James tells his story in the first person. Jones's story is told from the third person.
Martin, an attorney and psychotherapist, is familiar enough with the struggles facing those who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia or addictions to provide sufficient details to make the stories of the impact of those afflictions generally credible. The problem is a significant lack of internal consistency.
Jones was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic as a freshman in high school following a mental breakdown. Medication helped control his symptoms and he graduated with few suspecting his illness. Jones, who wants to be a writer, can't afford his medication after moving to New York City. He discovers (or comes to believe) that he is more creative without it. Like so many others, he feels the medicine dulls his senses and intellect. Yet the psychosis into which he descends shortly after going off his medication leads to his arrest. He goes back on medication but, shortly after meeting and moving in with the equally troubled Anna, he quits taking it once more. His obsession with Anna results in him being committed to an institution for the criminally insane.
There, the medication again brings the mental illness under control. Jones quits taking it, however, three days before escaping from the institution. Following his escape, he no longer takes the medicine and quickly descends into yet another breakdown, having only a "tenuous" grasp of reality. His agitation and paranoia increase until he sets off for San Francisco, fleeing the omnipresent "they." And this is where Journey Back goes astray.
Granted, any story told by a mentally ill or unstable person may be nonsensical, particularly when their mental state has so deteriorated. That explains how, after initially returning to New York City following his escape, Jones can spend a week and a half driving and end up only 160 miles upstate. His paranoid state might even explain his ability to later drive to San Francisco in less than 48 hours. Yet the first-person account of life in San Francisco presents a paranoid schizophrenic who has been unmedicated for months and barely in touch with reality "living a slow, comfortable domestic life."
James, the new persona, almost immediately obtains a job writing for an alternative weekly. Not only is he coherent enough to come up with this new identity and hold onto this job, he ends up living with Cheryl, the newspaper's assistant editor. She is unaware of his background and they carry on life working, socializing and entertaining like any other couple.
The story of life in San Francisco is very lucid despite the fact there is no indication James ever goes back on medication. Aside from occasional marijuana usage, James also stays free of illicit drugs. But then he learns about secret experiments with a new hallucinogen that allegedly can help cure alcoholics and drug addicts. To write about the drug, James must become part of the experiment, requiring him to leave Cheryl and move into a underground community created and run by the charismatic and mysterious leader of the project. His pursuit of this story and the truth about the drug is what leads to Journey Back being promoted as one of "psychological suspense."