Imagine a world where substances — some dangerous, some benign — are banned outright by the government. People are dragged from their beds at night, are thrown into counseling or forced to have medical treatments they may or may not need, are tossed into jail and are branded as criminals. And worse. Could a draconian situation such as this really exist?
In Christopher Largen’s new polemic novel Junk, that Orwellian scenario is reality. What the powers that be label as junk food — cakes, red meat, chips, candies, and such — is considered immoral and, therefore, is forbidden under law. Domestic use of potentially dangerous materials such as flour, whole milk, and salt are scrutinized by the government. Military forces blast African cocoa fields in order to keep the sweet, tantalizing, deep brown confection out of our mouths and off of our hands. Meanwhile, neighbors are encouraged to spy on the folks next door and to report their eating habits — heaven forbid what might happen if one puts on a pound or two. Moralizing church and family groups boycott books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and organizations brainwash children into surrendering to rigid conformity and turning in their snacking parents. Agencies exist for the sole purpose of combatting a “war on junk,” aided by the smiling, judgmental talking heads of the mainstream media.
It’s heavy stuff. Thank goodness Junk is a comedy. Using a series of vignettes, Largen paints a darkly hilarious picture of a prohibitionist world gone mad. The novel intersperses faux newspaper accounts, interview transcripts, advertisements, and press releases with slices of life from the little town of Denton, TX. The idea, one suspects, is that the author intends to overwhelm the reader with the ridiculousness of what is occurring.
And yes, it is ridiculous: Junk opens with a chubby teenage girl being pulled from her bed and brutishly carted off to rehab. (The terrified teen’s final thought, as an arresting officer manhandles her, tosses her into the back seat of his patrol car and ridicules her: “War. Is. Hell.”) In the next chapter, we see death by Twinkie: A young man chokes to death on plastic-wrapped contraband he shoves into his throat when a cop pulls him over for a traffic stop. Denton’s poor inner city is ruled by gangs such as the Hot Dog Homeboys and the Ice Cream Crew. On news shows, supposed journalists such as Fernando Rivero, practically bow in supplication to the War on Junk and organizations like the Substance Consumption Abuse Resistance Education (SCARE). In schools, search-and-seizure is a constant threat. In business, captains of industry rake in the, um, dough marketing invasive food-abuse testing for nosy corporations to give to potential employees while also selling technology — the Pee-Thetic — that allows secret snackers to beat the tests.
And then there are Largen’s little touches. Bumper stickers on Denton cars read: THIS CAR WAS SEIZED FROM LOCAL JUNK FOOD DEALERS. Left- and right-wing clergypersons launch into a nationally televised fistfight over censorship and conformity. Green-colored silicone bracelets saying YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT are all the rage. Junk-war opponents (freethinking bohemians, hippie types, and groups such as Students for Sensible Food Policy, the American Consumption Liberties Union, and the National Organization for the Reform of Muffin Laws) exercise their First Amendment rights at the Burning Gingerbread Man Festival — or try to, what with all the cops slinking around to see if anyone ingests something untoward.
As wild as it all sounds, and as funny as Largen’s prose can be, the author is writing about reality, the vile and pernicious “War on (Some) Drugs (and a Plant) being fought inside and outside of US borders. Everything Largen presents humorously really happens — except that in real life, the substances arbitrarily banned by three-martini lunching rulers aren’t pies or doughnuts (or martinis).
In Junk, as in real life, thousands of people receive lengthy prison terms for obviously minor infractions while violent criminals walk free. Police work both sides of the divide, using brutality to bring down suppliers, sellers, and users while carving out a little sweet action for themselves on the side. Manuacturers and distributors of illicit substances secretly pray for the ban’s survival, which guarantees them huge black-market profits. People living in poor areas are at the mercy of black marketeers and the crime and death that is an inevitable byproduct of the Feds’ “war.”
And then there is the matter of those using forbidden substances for legitimate medicinal purposes. The book presents them as diabetics who aren’t allowed to use insulin — the government has deemed the lifesaving substance as dangerous contraband. Their real-life equivalent is medical-marijuana patients, who were the focus of Largen’s last book, the nonfiction Prescription Pot. In Junk, as in life, these patients are treated not as sick people, but as lowlife criminals. Treatment is unlawful for all but seven legally approved persons who receive a low-grade version of their medication from uncaring, oblivious government scientists. Of course the lack of caring these seven receive looks like an overflowing of love when compared to the way the law treats thousands, perhaps millions of others.
Prescription Pot tells the story of one of America’s lucky seven George McMahon (Largen co-wrote the book with McMahon, who, disguised as diabetes sufferer George Mabry, appears at Junk‘s Burning Gingerbread Man Festival). In telling McMahon’s story and the larger one about US efforts to curb the use of banned substances by nearly any means necessary, it was obvious that Largen is angry about what he sees as ridiculous prohibitions and their often tragic ends.
That anger is a necessary portion of Largen’s new book. Junk makes for entertaining, riveting reading, wherever one falls on the opinion continuum. There are plenty of laughs to carry one along, but this is a serious book that raises serious questions about public health policy, about the dangers of groupthink, about compassion, about the trustworthiness of our government and institutions, about prohibition itself. Largen’s book certainly will tickle your funny bone. More importantly, it will make you think. At times, it will make you sad. Chances are it ultimately will make you mad – perhaps angry enough to take whatever steps you can to take a stand against the real-life ridiculousness.