Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Intoxicated by John Barlow








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John Barlow’s new novel, Intoxicated, may provide cogent lessons for executives about market research, supply chain management, and product marketing. Set in rural Victorian England, amid a growing temperance movement, the novel presents the history of a fictional carbonated beverage, Rhubarilla, made from rhubarb, coca, and other secret ingredients. Barlow develops each member of the Brookes family with precision, and offers Rodrigo Vermilion as a flamboyant entrepreneurial counterpart to the other characters. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 2, pp. 41-45:


They traveled on in silence, moving into open grassland, a blind ex­panse of black in the moonless night, flecked here and there with the orange spots of a distant window. The horses’ hooves slowed as they began the long climb to Farnley.

Tom was snoring with a bubbling grunt, as if his body was full of lively fluids that had no intention of going to sleep. The carriage’s two lanterns brought his face into relief, the eyes sooty with late nights, the chin thick and pale with blubber. Isaac watched him. All the hours I’ve worked! he told himself, looking at his twenty-one-year-old boy, swollen and satisfied next to him on the seat. All the years of it! And look at him! Twenty-one, and a man of leisure! Look at the fun he’s having whilst around him men toil like beasts just to stay alive. To be young now! To be at it afresh, with the Empire so far extended, the world opened up. How far I would go in your shoes, he whispered. How far! If only you’d stuck it out in France, Tom! Made a start there. Look what you could’ve had! Investments? What is that? You could have had a mill. A mill at twenty-one...

They came to the crown of the hill. Robert brought the horses up to a trough outside the Woodcock Inn. As the animals drank, he sat quite still, looking ahead.

“Are you well, Robert?” Isaac asked, thinking back to what the sta­bleman had said earlier.

A pause. Robert moved in his seat and yanked at the sleeves of his overcoat.

“Ah am,” he mumbled, in the end.

“Everything’s well, then?”

Ah’m well enough.”

“So everything’s well?” Isaac said, again.

“Ah nivva said that!”

He spun around, his eyes ablaze, his lower lip quivering until it flapped against his gums, making a clack-clacking sound. But he said nothing more.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Abaht time summun did summat!” Robert blurted out, his mouth distorted, his breath heavy and irregular. “‘Er on er sickbed!”

“Sickbed? Who, Sarah? Is Sarah ill?”

“Aye, she is. An’ none on us allowed to tell yer.”

Isaac, breathless with confusion, looked at his snoring son. He shook him, gently at first, but then more violently, Tom’s head thumping hard into the wall of the carriage until his eyelids prized themselves apart.

“Is this true, Tom? Tom!”

“What? What is it, uh?”

“Is Mother ill?”

“Who? M  oh, that. It’s nothing serious, I don’t—”

“‘Appen not when theewere up ‘ome last, it weren’t!”

There was a hateful fury in Robert’s voice. Tom rose to grab his throat, but his father pushed him back down into his seat with such force that the carriage rocked on its springs.

By the time Tom had got his breath back, they were speeding down the valley side at a gallop. He cowered in the corner, as far away from his father as he could, taking swigs from his flask of brandy, re­membering now that it was four or five weeks at least since he was last at Moorlands.

They were at the valley bottom in three or four minutes, then up the other side, on through Drighlington, crossing the Dewsbury Road without noticing that it was there, the loud rattle of their progress a warning to others on the road, who pulled aside and watched them speed by. Over the brow of the next hill they charged, then down again towards Birkenshaw, but cutting off onto Moor Lane, down, down the treacherous drop to Gomersal, so fast that the wheels of the carriage lifted as it coursed left and right on the uneven surface.


From her seat at the kitchen table Sarah now directed things, despite her fatigue. What had always been a strong, fun-loving voice was now no more than a wavering rasp, a tired struggle to push the words out; Sarah Brookes, who had given up everything to come and live at Moorlands, who for thirty-five years had hardly ever left her rural paradise in Gomersal, and to whom the house meant more than life itself; she was now reduced to this, to giving orders as others cooked supper.

The pudding had been salvaged, and stood in the cracked bowl ready to be turned out. From the oven a leg of mutton had been re­trieved, its coat of fat singed black in places, the flesh beneath as moist and bloody as the day it was slaughtered. But the potatoes were boiling correctly, and there was bread. The homecoming feast, then, had been partly reclaimed.

“It would be such a fine thing if Tom came,” she said, her voice gaining some strength. Her face was sunken, the flesh close to the bone, and her breath betrayed the aching, phlegmy state of her lungs. Yet she was animated by the thought of her elder son. “If only he would come!”

“Oh yes! How fine to see him! What a fine thing that would be!” George said as he sliced a loaf of bread.

“When was he here last?” she asked herself, out loud. “Like Isaac when he was young. Just the same. Work, always work.”

George put all his anger into the destruction of the bread. He huffed with frustration, and slices as thick as Bibles fell from the loaf.

“Is Tom coming, do you know?” she said, lifting her head.

He threw down the knife, and in doing so caught his thumb, slit­ting open the soft flesh on the inside of the hand. The wound, an inch long, winked at him as the blood dribbled out, running into his palm... The cut is Tom’s, he told himself, and the blood is hers. . . For over a month the life had been draining away from her, a little more each day. And every day it was harder to stay calm, just he and May there in the house, to see her like this ... Where is Tom? Where is Father?

Sarah, meanwhile, had remembered something or other. Some­thing about Tom and George, the story about the rhubarb tops, per­haps. She tried to tell it, but her laughter caused her to gasp, and the words got caught up in her shallow breath, which suddenly became labored and desperate.

George’s hand was throbbing with pain. Overcome by what he and May had borne, there at home without Tom, without his father, as his mother retreated from life (though she denied it), he pulled his hand into his chest and cradled it, tears welling in his eyes, voice­less words falling from his mouth.

Sarah brought a hand to her throat. She leant forwards in her seat and for a second was unable to swallow. May rushed over and slapped her back, then rubbed it, then could not think what else to do. She looked around, panicking, then took Sarah’s shoulders and massaged them. Finally, Sarah lifted her hand and placed it on one of May’s, as if to say that it had passed.

At that moment May caught sight of George, who was staggering like a man shot through the heart, his white shirt bright with blood at the front. She screamed and ran around the table to him, knocking the pudding to the ground. The cleft bowl shattered, and the pud­ding itself, a lump of midbrown stodge, darkened at one end with burnt jam, came to a rest on the stone floor. As she took hold of George and guided him towards a chair, she stepped in the pudding, smearing it with her heel; it looked like a small mammal flattened to death there, its dark blood and beating flesh reduced to a sticky foot­print. George fell back into the chair, his shirt boasting an impressive splash of blood red. And Sarah, her breathing restored to normal, also fell back in her chair, her face ashen and wasted, her eyes watery.

The room filled with a violent whiz as the potatoes boiled over, leaping in a frenzy, growling and bobbing in the water like impatient salmon.

“Bon soir!”

The door flew open. Isaac appeared, framed against the night. But the bonhomie was contrived, and his rosy face was rigid with fear.



After dinner Isaac led Sarah upstairs.

“Cramps? Infections?” he said as he steered her across the landing and into their bedroom. “You mean you don’t know? What are you taking?”

“It’s nothing,” she said quietly, as if trying to conceal the news of her illness from the very walls of the house. “It’ll pass.”

“Has John Heaton been? I’ll send for him in the morning. Shall I go now? Shall I?”

“There’s no need. Dr. Mussle has—”

“But John’s the best in Leeds. He’s a friend! Your father knew him! Sarah, please.”

She lay on the bed, its sheets in a mess, hanging down to the floor. Isaac pulled them over her, ordering them as best he could, fussing around, still shaking his head.

“I’ll send for him tomorrow. No, no, I’ll go myself. First thing. I’ll . . .“

She took his hand, and drew him closer. He sat on the edge of the bed, holding her hand tight, his eyes glazed, his breathing as fast as hers.

“Isaac,” she said, her voice getting weaker, “I have everything I need here.”


“Everything. I have everything here that I want.” He barely heard her.


“I’m going to retire,” he said.

She smiled, and whispered: “Good”

“I’m leaving France. Forever, Sarah. Forever.”



For some readers, Barlow’s writing is an acquired taste, and while I gave a lower rating to his earlier collection of novellas, Eating Mammals, I found Intoxicated to be absorbing, even somewhat addictive, and recommend it.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2006 issue of Executive Times


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