The full name of John Barlow's novel is
Intoxicated: A Novel of Money, Madness, and the Invention of the World's Favorite Soft Drink, lest you think I selected the book due to an association with beer. Barlow's book is set in 1860s Leeds, where Isaac Brookes, wool manufacturer, is retiring to his home. Brookes has spent most of the last 20 years in France for the sake of his business, which has meant that he's neglected his wife Sarah, and his sons Tom and George. On the train home, a chance encounter with Rodrigo Vermilion, a destitute hunchback midget, leads Isaac to the start of a friendship of sorts, and perhaps a business opportunity as well.
Upon his arrival home, however, Isaac discovers that things haven't exactly been proceeding smoothly in his absence. At 22, Tom seems destined to squander the fortune his father has amassed through whoring, drinking, and terrible investments. George, five years Tom's junior, is a simpleton who has trouble even reading. And most significantly, Isaac learns that his wife is quite ill.
When Vermilion is saved from a beating at the hands of drunkards through the assistance of Temperance soldiers, and they offer him a vile non-alcoholic substitute for refreshment, Vermilion finds a business waiting for him -- soft drinks. He enlists Brookes into his scheme, and they almost immediately stumble upon rhubarb as the beverage's base. When George coins the term Rhubarilla, the marketing is established. All that remains is to actually settle on the product.
The story is engaging as it dances around its fictitious soda center. Isaac's personal conflict between trying retirement to be there for his wife and the need to pursue a new business is well-developed, even as it becomes complicated by a growing addiction. Vermilion is the story's most interesting creation -- even as he's both P.T. Barnum and one of Barnum's sideshows, Barlow is able to give this creature depth in his desires for love and success.
The book certainly possesses an element of the absurd, but the direction the book takes means that this element all but vanishes through the lsat third of the book. This change results in something of an identity crisis for the tale, but this shortcoming is a minor one, and I certainly recommend the book despite it.