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.