Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Pepsi-Cola Addict

If you haven't read The Silent Twins (1986) by Marjorie Wallace then do so - it's excellent. The book tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins from Haverfordwest, who ceased speaking to adults and retreated into their own private fantasy world. The girls drifted into petty crime, committed acts of vandalism, and eventually wound up in Broadmoor.

Prior to their incarceration the twins locked themselves in their bedroom and decided to become novelists. Already compulsive diarists they signed up to a postal creative writing course and systematically set about teaching themselves the rules of fiction. In the cramped confines of their room these 17-year-old autodidacts wrote several novels. They were like the Bronte sisters, only black and from Haverfordwest.

Ever since I first heard about their novels (The Pepsi-Cola Addict; The Pugilist and Discomania) they have fascinated me. Unfortunately they are virtually impossible to track down. Over the years I've ransacked second-hand bookshops and charity outlets in search of them but to no avail. Even the internet has drawn a blank - these books are cult-fictional gold-dust.

Last week though I finally managed to get my mitts on The Pepsi-Cola Addict (God bless the inter-library loans system). My joy was tempered somewhat by the condition of the book - it had been rebound with no trace of the original cover. A quick scan of the text revealed a multitude of typographical errors. No matter, in my hands were 129 pages of pure cult-fiction, the creative outpourings of June Alison Gibbons.

The Pepsi-Cola Addict is written in the third person. It tells the story of one Preston Wildey King, a white 14-year-old boy who lives in Malibu, California. He is addicted to Pepsi-Cola but hates Coca-Cola. Eerily foreshadowing the twins' own fate Preston drifts into crime and is detained in a juvenile correctional centre. The novel ends with Preston committing suicide, washing down barbiturates with Pepsi-Cola.

The book is written entirely in American vernacular. Gibbons compiled an anglo-American glossary before commencing the work to aid authenticity. The result though is a heightened artificiality which ultimately works in the novel's favour. The cartoon-like backdrop of her utopian-American construct fits nicely with the hormonal drive of the teen narrative.

The main preoccupation of the book - as you might expect from a 17-year-old author - is sex. Preston has relationship problems. He is estranged from his cheerleader girlfriend Peggy; his best friend Ryan comes onto him; he loses his virginity to his teacher Mrs Rosenberg. Given that the twins had such a narrow range of experience you get the feeling teen magazine problem pages were a valuable reference source. To her credit Gibbons describes episodes of male masturbation, fellatio and sexual intercourse with commendable assurance.

Preston's curious addiction to Pepsi-Cola is never clearly explained. The novel starts with him bulk buying the stuff and fantasising about drinking 300 cans a day. He drinks it for comfort and for energy. Sometimes though he uses it as a substitute for living: At fourteen years old wherever he turned, he somehow failed to develop any sense of adventure and remained statically serene with the drink he called the "high life". You can't help feeling this sense of inertia is entirely biographical.

In fact the personal themes that directly link June Gibbons with Preston are numerous: confinement; introspection; boredom; a desire for escape; sexual frustration; the glamour of transgression. These also happen to be the universal concerns of adolescence.

Despite its warped My Guy sensibility this novel stands up as fiction in its own right. It doesn't, of course, have the complexity and polish of an Absolute Beginners or a Catcher in the Rye but as a glimpse into the psyche of a troubled teen it is pretty unique and more authentic than most. What surprises me is that The Pepsi-Cola Addict and other works by the Gibbons twins haven't been reprinted. Surely these genuine examples of cult fiction deserve a wider readership?