But David’s guilt over those sick rats and primates never subsides, and as his story continues into the 1980s and ’90s, the Nine’s runaway success exacts a toll not only upon the American people, who get fatter and fatter, but also upon his own family. His wife, Betty, addicted to Nine-abetted products, lurches from one fad diet to the next. His son, similarly hooked, stops using verbs in his sentences. His daughter, on the other hand, evolves into a sullen whole-foods activist who crusades against the Nine and other additives, unaware of where Dad worked before she was born.
“Sweetness #9” is mostly played for laughs, and Clark has good comic instincts, for both vérité details (there’s something inherently funny about the phrase “Sprague-Dawley rats,” which describes the strain of albino critters actually used in labs) and parody-worthy food phenomena. The Nine’s crystals, we’re told, were dyed pink when the product first hit the market, but as of 1994, in keeping with the times, they were sold only in their “natural, dye-free” version — except in Mexico. Much as real-world food nostalgists now fetishize Mexican Coke (supposedly made with cane sugar rather than HFCS), in Clark’s alternate universe, a robust eBay trade in 100-count boxes of “Mexican Nine” has arisen.
Still, “Sweetness #9” is not the cleverly formulated how-we-eat-now novel it initially promises to be. Beneath the veneer of smart topicality is a style of storytelling that could charitably be called quaint and uncharitably called dated: the freakazoid-fiction approach of the late ’60s, early ’70s undergraduate who’s binged on Kurt Vonnegut and wants to write his own “Slaughterhouse-Five,” man.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by Vonnegut, and at least in one respect, it appears that Clark is wearing this influence on his sleeve: David’s mentor, a pioneering German flavor scientist named Ernst Eberhardt, was a World War II-era refugee from Dresden, the very city where Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” survived the Allies’ aerial bombing in 1945, and where Vonnegut himself was a P.O.W. Like Vonnegut, Clark assigns his characters knotty personal histories rooted in historical events: Ernst served time in Hitler’s bunker as a cook; a colleague of David’s named Hickey had a leg blown off in Vietnam; and David himself lost his parents to the murderous rampage of Charles Whitman, the “tower sniper” who killed 16 people in Austin in 1966.
Yet Clark, the author of the story collection “Vladimir’s Mustache,” doesn’t pull off this interweaving of the real and the fictitious with the grace and compassion that Vonnegut did. The Charles Whitman business, for example, seems like a cheap shock tactic — it doesn’t go anywhere — and Clark succumbs to that Vonnegut-wannabe tendency of rendering every character a sour grotesque. Some of them even have Vonnegut-esque names: the Leveraux family’s housekeeper-nanny is named Aspirina (who is casually killed off — ha ha! — in a bus accident), while the best friend of David’s daughter is named Sarin, like the nerve gas.