“American Pop: A Novel”
Author: Snowden Wright
Publisher: William Morrow
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
“American Pop” is in the tradition of the Edna Ferber multi-generational novel, like “Giant,” that lets us follow a cluster of characters, usually one extended family, from their origins, through the rise in fortunes and, oftentimes, their decline.
In “Giant,” set in Texas, the liquid that made the family fortune was oil. In “American Pop,” set largely in the Mississippi Delta, the liquid is coke—soda or pop if you are a Yankee.
This sprawling, sweeping story begins modestly enough in Batesville, Mississippi, Panola County.
The family patriarch, Tewskbury Forster, with his wife, Fiona, migrated from Scotland. Not licensed to practice medicine in America, he opens a pharmacy.
Their son, Houghton, born 1876, as a teenager works in that pharmacy, especially manning the soda fountain, and there experiments with sodas. He invents Panola Cola, PanCola, which catches on first at the Forster Rex-for-All and next in Oxford, where “students became fond of the soda, not only for its adaptability as a mixer with various liquors, rum and whiskey and gin, but also for its restorative properties when consumed the next day.”
PanCola is different from its competitors—Pepsi and Coke and the rural upstart Royal Crown. It seems to have a secret ingredient, and a running theme of this novel is the attempt by others, using guile and force, to discover what the secret ingredient is.
Hints are dropped throughout and each reader who cares to may decide for himself.
The fizzy water makes the Forsters very rich and powerful—discussed in the same newspaper articles as Rockefellers and Carnegies. They will have office buildings in major American cities. The bottle, then can, with its white, red and blue logo are known all over the world—Africa, Asia, everywhere.
Wright uses a technique we saw recently in George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo,” that is, he drops into his text quotations from newspapers and magazines. Some of these are legitimate; some he makes up. From Louis Terral in the “St. Louis Dispatch”: “Mississippians are said to believe that when they die and go to heaven, it will be just like the Peabody lobby.” Wright has Andy Warhol say: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see PanCola, and you know the president drinks Pan, Liz Taylor drinks Pan, and just think, you can drink Pan, too. A Pan is a Pan.”
Now THAT is an endorsement.
Written by a native Mississippian, “American Pop” has the tone of an insider novel. Wright says, “The Forsters, like most southern families, typically had one of two intentions when conversing among themselves: to make each other laugh or to make each other bleed.”
Wright opens his novel at a relatively high point in the family history: on New Year’s Eve, 1939, in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis where, it is said, The Delta begins, and where “ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”
Immediately we meet Houghton’s four children, grown now, and are given glimpses into their respective pasts and hints about their futures.
Montgomery Forster, soon to be lieutenant governor of Mississippi, is about to meet with the senator from Massachusetts to seek his help for a future presidential run.
This seems promising but Montgomery, on the Peabody roof, is considering jumping. We learn that during WWI at the front, he had lost the love of his life, British lieutenant Nicholas Harrington.
Montgomery’s sister, Ramsey, is in the lobby and not happy. Married to Hollywood mogul Arthur Landau, Ramsay became depressed after four miscarriages and, seeking solace in Paris, has a two-year love affair with exotic American dancer Josephine Baker. They attend parties at Cole Porter’s place where “Anais Nin switched which leg she leaned on each time she took a drag of her cigarette. Henry Miller rearranged his crotch by hand whenever he thought nobody would notice.”
Ramsey’s twin brother, Lance, is essentially a ne’er do well, and her other brother, Harold, who reminds the reader of Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” petting one of their “feathery little heads,” accidentally breaks the neck of one of the Peabody Lobby ducks.
Montgomery in his political climb meets with a group of Delta planters at a high stakes poker game. This set piece is brilliant. The game is held at the home of Maximilian Everard IV: “My friends call me Four.”
The men tell stories, drink and play cards. These planters might help Montgomery if he agrees to further promote the sales tax, which he knows is “abhorrently regressive taxation,” and fight the income and ad valorem taxes. Although Montgomery thinks “landowners in this region used phrases like fiscal responsibility, economic modernization and corporate expansion when what they really meant was racial subjugation,” he lies and agrees to support their positions.
For 350 pages and 100 years we follow this family through generations of deaths, births, illnesses including polio, marriages, suicide, rape, incest, two world wars, political intrigue, extravagant successes and bankruptcy, brilliance and stupidity. At one point they change the formula and bring out Pan Cola Too.
Big mistake. They return to the “Heritage Formula.”
“American Pop” is a genuine page turner. Real fun.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.