American Pop. By Snowden Wright. William Morrow; 400 pages; $26.99
IT IS the sugary nectar poured down the throats of millions around the world. Water will quench your thirst; alcohol will get you drunk; soda (or cola, or pop, choose the regional term you prefer) will do little more than tickle your nose and fatten you up. And yet, since John Pemberton tried out his carbonated concoction on the customers of a pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia—now the fabled home of Coca-Cola, as his brew came to be called—the syrupy fizz has taken hold, seemingly ineradicably. The global market for soft drinks is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It shows little sign of shrinking despite concerns over rising rates of obesity and diabetes in the developed world.
Pop—one brand of the stuff in particular—haunts the modern imagination. The television series “Mad Men” reached its climax with Don Draper creating Coke’s legendary “Hilltop” advert in 1971. The current president of the United States has a special red button on his desk in the Oval Office just to summon a can of the stuff. Now Snowden Wright, who lives in Atlanta, has devoted his second novel to the story of a fictional cola dynasty.
Houghton Forster is born on July 4th 1876, America’s centennial year, in Mississippi, his birthday aligning him not only with the fortunes of his country but with the progress of the southern states in particular in the years after the civil war. Employed as a soda jerk at his father’s pharmacy, he is only 14 years old when he figures out the magic formula that makes the family’s fortune. In Mr Wright’s telling, Panola Cola—named after Houghton’s home county—challenges, and even eclipses, its non-fictional rivals.
This is a family saga. The book includes a genealogical tree as a frontispiece, tracing the lineage of the Forsters from the 19th to the late 20th century. It is a handy feature, as the novel does not proceed chronologically; it darts between generations as its members become involved not only in the soda business but also in the political and cultural events of the tumultuous 20th century. Montgomery Forster, Houghton’s oldest boy, falls in love with a fellow soldier in the trenches of the first world war; his sister Ramsey, in Paris before the second world war, falls for the cabaret artist Josephine Baker. Mr Wright’s style is appropriately effervescent for his subject matter; Houghton Forster’s goal, he writes, was to create “the nation’s quintessential family”—and he might be said to have done so. Yet a dynasty’s strength in numbers is also its weakness, as its members fight for a sip from the straw.
This is an engaging novel, an updated Southern Gothic. But perhaps not quite updated enough: though Mr Wright hasn’t set out to write social history, it is something of a shame that he never really engages with the issues of race and class which transformed American society even more than Forster’s singular beverage. Deeper consideration might have given the book a bit more substance, and a bit less froth.