A Novel of Money, Madness,
and the Invention of the World's Favorite Soft Drink
By John Barlow
Morrow. 353 pp. $24.95
Five years after Eating Mammals , John Barlow is back with another gastronomical story that's as surprising, funny and satisfying as a good belch. The British writer is something of a master at concocting what could be called "sentimental grotesques," and Intoxicated , a novel about the development of an improbable soft drink made from rhubarb, delivers a strange but irresistible mix of flavors.
We meet young George Brookes in 1863 when he's whirling around upside down, vomiting. His mother, Sarah, has discovered him eating rhubarb leaves in the yard and is determined to spin the poison out of his little body. George survives, of course (rhubarb leaves aren't all that toxic), but over the next topsy-turvy decade, that scene congeals into a family legend that captures the blend of disorientation, despair and hilarity that enters their lives during the course of this novel.
Sarah's husband, Isaac, is a shrewd businessman of "confounded eccentricity" who has finally noticed the general disarray at home. He decides to sell off his lucrative wool factory in France and settle down with his wife and sons in Leeds, England, for good. But his retirement lasts only about 15 minutes before he accidentally saves the life of a flamboyant midget named Roderick Vermilion, who convinces him to pour his fortune into the development of a nonalcoholic drink to satisfy the growing temperance movement. (The air is already bubbling with rumors about carbonated beverages in America.)
Even before his family has perfected a secret recipe in the kitchen, Isaac has set up a manufacturing system and built a rhubarb cartel that promises supplies and profits year-round. His long-suffering wife never really expected him to settle down anyway; she's just grateful that this crazy scheme keeps everyone's mind off her impending death. Under Vermilion's gassy encouragement, young George discovers he has a knack for writing advertising jingles, despite his severe dyslexia, and for the first time he dares to think of himself as something besides a kindly simpleton. Only the elder son, Tom, resists these plans, realizing his days of drinking and whoring away Dad's fortune are threatened by the fast-talking midget who dresses like a leprechaun.
While their madcap plans ferment, Barlow adds a number of serious and even tragic ingredients. It's almost not fair how much he makes us care for these silly, vulnerable people. The marriage of Sarah and Isaac spans the poles of devotion and negligence that only two people deeply in love can understand -- or forgive. And poor George can't possibly mature until he suffers the shattering realization that his older brother is a brutal, selfish man.
In a sense, Barlow has stirred up a batch of fiction that's not unlike the strange drink Vermilion devises: "When anyone sampled Rhubarilla," the narrator writes, "its mystery got them immediately, and they fell like enchanted infants under the spell of its strange, unknowable taste. From the very first sip it inveigled its way through their gums, down into the roots of their teeth. Of course, they would tell themselves, it does seem to taste like rhubarb, but . . . what is it . . . that tingling-sweetness, sour-and-sugary, damn it, what's the word? Not rhubarb, no, no . . . ! It's . . . it's. . . . I know it . . . right on the tip of my tongue. . . . That was the key to it. That was how Rhubarilla got you, insidiously, but innocently. Liquid hypnotism."
Before you know it, under Barlow's spell and the scent of boiling sugar and mashed rhubarb, you're settling down 130 years later to consider the mixture of hype and hope that still drives consumer marketing, sells over-the-counter medicines and makes us reach reflexively for cold, brown liquids in aluminum cans. A few minutes of listening to Vermilion promise "a draft of happiness" in every bottle are enough to excite anyone's skepticism, but Intoxication delivers the goods. It's the real thing. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.