Stephan Eirik Clark
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Talk about the into the belly of the beast!
David Leveraux is a flavorist, a profession that creates “the flavors for everything from cherry in your can of soda to the butter on your popcorn.” In 1973 the new graduate lands his dream job with industry giant Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, testing the newly developed artificial sweetener known as Sweetness #9. But before too long he notices some troubling side effects in the rats that are his test subjects: irritability, anxiety, obesity, lethargy and even a “generalized dissatisfaction with life.”
He takes his concerns to management but gets brushed off at every turn. Growing increasingly frantic, ultimately he is fired and ends up on “vacation” at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital even as Sweetness #9 gains FDA approval and starts to be utilized in everything from soup to nuts. Eventually David grows to doubt what he believed he saw in the laboratory, and is able to shove aside his former fears enough to once again work in food flavoring, this time at FlavAmerica under the paternal eye of German national Ernst Eberhardt (creator of flavor superstar NoNilla).
Yet even as David flourishes at FlavAmerica, dysfunction invades his personal life. His wife, constantly sipping diet soda, nevertheless struggles with her weight and her self esteem. His petulant teenage daughter is ashamed of his profession and goes vegan while screeching at the family to try macrobiotics; his son insists on coloring all his food red, spends hours playing video games (and drooling), and gets put in the ESL class when he stops using verbs in his speech. And as the Leveraux family goes – microwave dinners, wasabi mayonnaise and cherry flavored cough syrup in hand – so goes America.
David himself is a somewhat pathetic anti-hero. A nice enough guy, he doesn’t see the irony of getting upset at the thought of his son taking Ritalin while he himself pops lorazepam to even out his anxiety meds, of arguing like a crusader with the family about their well-being as they chow down at McDonald’s, and of being enough of a wuss to allow the sustained use of products infused with Sweetness #9 – even stocking the little pink packets of the sweetener itself – by his family, and routinely imbibing himself, even while being secretly tortured by his knowledge of its negative effects, even while seeing those negative effects playing out in those he is supposed to love the most. When his comeuppance finally comes – by his own hand – we laugh as well as cringe.
Sweetness #9 is a witty, facetious, and not so subtly alarming tale that hits at one of our biggest cultural fears – that that which placates us, kills us. Are we truly what we eat? Then heaven help us. While not the most tightly written of social satires, Sweetness #9 is clever enough to keep it entertaining. Some of the side stories, while a bit fantastical, do humanize the overall scope of the book, and some of the side characters are wickedly, occasionally poignantly drawn. Sweetness #9 is a good enough read… but I suggest if you do, set aside the microwave popcorn and instead reach for the organic kale chips. That will make it all go down just a bit better.