By Snowden Wright
William Morrow, 2019
Snowden Wright’s debut, Play Pretty Blues, was published in 2013 by the “boutique” fiction press Engine Books, one of those small-but-earnest presses whose darlings tend to fly below the radar of the major grandees of the Republic of Letters. And yet even so, Play Pretty Blues received an inordinate share of attention for the best of all possible reasons: it was memorably, noticeably good.
With Wright’s second novel, American Pop, any radar-problems will be solved for the remainder of this author’s career. This book, a multi-generational historical novel about the Forster family and their burgeoning but perpetually troubled soft drink company, Panola Cola, is published by the venerable William Morrow in an elaborate and gorgeous production that might have given the accountants at Engine Books a bit of pause. There is nothing “boutique” about this second Snowden Wright novel; American Pop is clearly intended to announce the Arrival of (more or less) new voice.
This would be awkwardly embarrassing as a publishing presumption, except for the aforementioned best of all possible reasons: American Pop is memorably, noticeably good. Wright lays out the generations of the Forster clan in extravagant, profuse detail and the literary bravura of a writer stretching his art. The story of patriarch Houghton Forster and his four children, Lance, Ramsey, Harold, and Montgomery as they shape the fortunes of their famous company while winding their lives through the complexities of the American South in the first half of the 20th century is, in Wright’s hands, a massively complicated and consistently absorbing chronicle of human weakness in all its forms. It’s also a chronicle of Southern-fiction archetypes in all their forms, from imperious Southern matriarch Annabelle Forster on down the roster.
The most fascinating of these figures is the tortured closeted gay son, in this case tall, handsome Montgomery, the eldest and heir, whose erotic encounters with an officer during service at the front during the First World War Wright has wisely deployed as the book’s most arresting early collection of scenes. Even decades later, Montgomery is still so foggily obsessed with his long-lost lover that he’s idly repeating the man’s name in his mind while he orders a drink at a gala New Year’s Eve event, attracting the suggestive glances of the bartender, about whom we’re told:
Despite his proficiency behind the counter, flipping a Boston shaker through the air and spinning a Hawthorne strainer in his palm, the bartender’s future was not in mixology. He would eventually gain one kind of exploitative success in Los Angeles, and then another when he moved to New York City decades later. On August 12, 1975, Knopf would pay him a reported six-figure sum for the memoir of his experiences scraping hundred-dollar bills off the nightstands of Cole Porter, James Whale, and Rock Hudson.
This prodigality of detail, this lavishing of backstory on every single walk-on character, is something of a narrative reflex throughout the book. Wright lodges the stories of his fictional family in a larger meta-chronicle, usually with a very smooth effectiveness:
Years later, a Harper’s Magazine review of her famous autobiography would describe Imogene Forster as “fearless and indomitable,” but on May 8, 1956, she lay in the bathtub on the second floor of her family home, crying into the lukewarm water, afraid to get out because she had no idea what to say in the eulogy for her grandfather, Houghton Forster.
The problem with such an overly generous instinct on an author’s part is obvious and inevitable: it’s an unbearable temptation for the droning, preening Know-It-All that lurks just one stiff drink below the surface of every novelist who’s ever drawn breath. This, too, happens regularly throughout American Pop. “PanCola had changed their bottle design from the standard 6.5-ounce model to an 8-ounce one, hoping to keep customers from switching their loyalty to the small upstart based in Atlanta,” we’re told at one typical point. “Neither company foresaw that, during the Great Depression a decade later, both would be challenged when Pepsi-Cola, bordering on bankruptcy, introduced a 12-ounce bottle.”
But so many of these digressions are so enjoyable, so much a part of the gloriously profuse atmosphere of this genealogy of American business and pleasure, that most readers won’t mind the occasional clink of 12-ounce bottles. American Pop is an unabashedly old-fashioned story in many ways, a character-driven and scandal-soaked tale of three generations of strivers and losers and occasional true believers. It would be easy to characterize it as a “Dynasty” novel only well-written, but that would be a disservice to the actual “Dynasty” novels, most of which were written by a fine Iowa writer name Eileen Lottman. But those novels are long gone, and Wright’s mightily entertaining story is very much with us in the bookstores today. Snowden Wright has arrived.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.