Eyes Wide Open by bestselling author Andrew Gross will make your pulse pound and your adrenalin rush like you’re on a wild roller coaster ride. Those may be cliched expressions reviewers often overuse, but in the case of Eyes Wide Open, they are nonetheless accurate ones. The novel is based in part on the tragic death of the author’s deeply troubled nephew, whose body was found at the base of a cliff on the California coast, as well as a brief encounter Gross had as a teenager with iconic killer Charles Manson.
In Eyes Wide Open, Dr. Jay Erlich’s nephew Evan, who has battled the demons of mental illness and drugs for years, finally succumbs, lured to the edge of Morro Bay Rock in California by a sweet voice he wrongly assumes to be that of an angel. Little does he realize, until it is far too late, that the voice that is telling him he can fly is not that of an angel but more like evil incarnate. It seems based on all available evidence that Evan, discovered crumpled at the base of Morro Bay Rock, committed suicide. Jay Erlich and his wife, Kathy, get a phone call from Gabby, the wife of Jay’s brother, Charlie (who also has suffered from mental illness for years), about Evan’s death as they’re celebrating their twentieth anniversary.
Jay cancels his appointments, arranges for someone else to cover the operations he’s scheduled for over the next few days, and flies to be with Charlie and Gabriel for Evan’s funeral. Jay has been there for Charlie and his family whenever he could in the past, even given them money whenever they asked for it. He still can’t help but to feel guilty that the mental illness that his father was able to deal with enough to become rich but cursed his brother, Gabby and Evan to a life of poverty and living off of the state, skipped over him. He had to put in the effort, get the good grades, and work sometimes eighty-hour weeks to succeed in becoming a doctor. He also knows that at one time, both Charlie and Evan seemed to be brilliant, like they would lead successful lives - until they started having violent episodes and needed multiple combinations of drugs to stabilize them.
During Part I of Eyes Wide Open (the novel is divided into four parts plus a prologue), the emotion rolls off the pages, the sadness and intense grief that Andrew Gross must have felt in writing a fictionalized account of what happened to his own nephew, to whom he dedicated the novel (both Alex and the fictional Evan were missing one sneaker when their bodies were found, for instance). This story alone is interesting and captivating enough to make for a great book, but Gross takes the story a step further. By weaving in Charlie Erlich’s stay at the ranch of cult leader Russell Houvnanian (a fictionalized version of Charles Manson) in 1973, and Houvnanian’s followers’ attempts to get revenge over thirty years later, he has written a thriller that ranks with the best ever written.
At first, Jay feels an almost righteous indignation at a system that has let Charlie, Gabby, and especially Evan down. How could it happen that Evan, a teen who had violent episodes and sometimes beat up his parents but was at other times almost zombiefied by the many pills he had to take, had been released to a halfway house that dealt primarily with elderly patients, like those with Alzheimer’s? Why was he allowed to leave the house to go for a walk, which led to his ultimate fate, dead after an apparent suicide at the bottom of a cliff? What happened to his missing black Nike sneaker, and why did he have a foil image of an open eye in his backpack, such as might be found in a box of Cracker Jacks? What was the source of his belief that he might one day become a policeman?
Jay extends his stay in San Luis Obispo longer than originally intended, trying to get to the truth behind Evan’s death. He goes to the police, and gets the very skeptical coroner’s detective, Sherwood, to help him. He goes to the press and talks to a television reporter about what happened, which doesn’t exactly make him more friends in the police department. When the body of Detective Walter Zorn is discovered with an electrical cord around his neck, certain aspects of Evan’s death suddenly point to a cause other than suicide.
Zorn had spoken to Evan before, and - according to the autopsy report – his body had slash wounds and a symbol cut underneath his tongue that looks like an open eye. Zorn was also the main detective responsible back in 1973 for collecting the evidence and questioning the cult members whose testimony put Houvnanian and several of his followers behind bars. The death of the author of a book about the Houvnanian killing called The End of Days, whose drowned body was discovered facedown in his pool in 1988, an apparent suicide, is starting to look more and more like it was a murder. Why else would he have a torn half of a dollar bill in his stomach - the half with the eye on it?
Eyes Wide Open is a chilling account of a Manson-like cult leader’s revenge over thirty years later while he is still behind bars at California’s Pelican Bay Supermax facility. Though he is behind bars, his follower Susan Pollack (earlier known as Maggie May or “Mags”) has herself been recently released from prison. She seems to have settled down, living on a farm rasing chickens, so how could she have been involved? She was still in jail when some of the other murders took place regardless, so who could have committed them? Feel your own adrenaline rush in Andrew Gross’s latest pulse-pounding rollercoaster ride.