The rise and fall of a fictitious cola empire and its founding family.
Perhaps the only throughline in Wright’s (Play Pretty Blues, 2013) chaotic second novel is the mystery of the secret ingredient in Panola Cola, aka PanCola, formulated by Mississippi pharmacist Houghton Forster, the only son of Scottish immigrants. Unfortunately, no one knows who, among three generations of PanCola heirs and heiresses, inherited PanCola’s exact recipe. The significance of “the secret” is gainsaid, however, by factories’ continuing to churn out a product which holds its own against Coke and Pepsi. Houghton’s offspring—Montgomery, the oldest; daughter Ramsey; her fraternal twin, Lance; and Harold, who seems to be on the autism spectrum—have little to do with the family business. Only Monty’s children, Imogene, disabled by polio, and her reckless brother, Nicholas, have ambitions for PanCola, but for some reason, inexplicable to both her and readers, Imogene is disinherited. From the 19th century through the 1970s, the Forsters gain and lose a fortune. The "Malediction” accidentally called down by the Forster matriarch, Fiona, on her descendants is mostly treated as an afterthought until, suddenly and belatedly, it’s not. The plot’s discontinuity is aggravated by an insouciant disregard for chronology. An arch, omniscient authorial voice dips into multiple psyches, and here Wright almost succeeds in holding our interest. Ramsey and her exploits in Paris as the lover of Josephine Baker, Lance’s unfortunate introduction to hunting, Montgomery’s gay love affair as a teenage World War I doughboy and his forays into politics, and Harold, the bellwether child of family trauma, all engage us emotionally, as do minor characters like the family factotum and fixer, Branchwater. The language is replete with irony and recognizably Southern witticisms, e.g., “Sarah…was constantly saying she was at her ‘wit’s end’ despite the obvious lack of a beginning." Flashbacks and flash-forwards abound, and often, on the verge of a crucial revelation, the action digresses along some anecdotal path, never to return.
Too much exposition is not the problem here—it's too little relevant information.