Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book Review- Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

I've just had a wonderful reading experience that left me walking 4 inches above the pavement for the rest of the day. This has been a very good year for books for me, although I'm sure people are getting a little sick of each time I read a book hearing me say, "No, really, you must go right out right now and get this book and read it. No, don't stop to put pants on. Really." Poppy Z. Brite wrote a wonderful novel in 2003 (yes, I'm a little late to the party, but please do bear in mind that I recently reviewed a 160 year old book) called Liquor. It is a fantastic book and, yes, I think everyone should read it.

The story takes place in New Orleans. As usual I don't want to give away too much, but it revolves... mainly around a character named Rickey, although the Third Person's eye wanders to other major characters, and meanwhiles, and characters in the periphery, fleshing out the lives of the supporting characters as well. But I do think the story is mainly Rickey's journey; and it's a bit of a rite of passage into a fullness of person-hood story for him. It's mainly about Rickey and his partner G-Man's journey from being unemployed line cooks to opening their own restaurant. There are many problems and stumbling blocks along the way as one would expect (many of which are actually stumbled over.) There are a few conventions that in the hands of a lesser story teller might have grated on me. For example, there is a wealthy man who swoops in bleeding money early on, but the character is so well done, so well fleshed out, with sharp edges and history, vast plains of moral grey areas in his character, personal goals that benefit those who serve his desires and destroy those who are in his way, that his parts were actually some of my favorite parts of the book. The chapters that follow the antagonist are so well done taking us right into the brain and reasoning of a very creepy and ugly character. I marveled at how well that terrible little man's terrible little brain is expressed, especially as one comes to, at the very least, an understanding, if not empathy, for why he is the mess that he is. The book is dark and gritty and, occasionally, a bit gruesome, even a bit on the macho side although not in a contrived way, but it really has the feeling of a walking tour or a well made documentary more than a novel. It was incredible in the narrative's plausibility.

There are many side notes about "a guy who..." or glimpses into the thoughts of the guy who owns the bar in the middle of the book, or regional bits about what the high school a local went to says about them to other locals. On a strictly technical level, you don't really need to know these things for the sake of forwarding the story, but it by no means detracts, and really makes the world so much richer. So, in a way, and I think Brite must have been fully aware of this, these seemingly throw-away side bits are absolutely essential to the story. Again, much like I said about Kiernan's, The Red Tree, while on the surface there seem to be digressions, I ardently feel that not a word was wasted. It all flavors the tone, which is of the essence. One of my favorite side bits, the guy in the family run fine dining grocery supply store who finds great joy in researching and relating encyclopedic knowledge about the items they sell. Fantastic. If anything, one of the most interesting characters in the book is the third person narrator, which is to say, Brite herself.

Having worked in produce delivery, I was very much reminded of some of the fine dining kitchens I've witnessed - the fevered pace, the high emotions, the tendency to be working with people who either love one another closer than family or always want to kill one another (and sometimes they do), the foul language and rampant vice. There's a stark honesty in the world of kitchens. Two of the characters put me in mind of two men I knew in those days so much that my brain, actually quite by subconscious, cast them as those characters. Lenny, in my brain, was one of the chef's of Johnnie's in the Hotel Diamond, except with hair. She really does take you into the restaurant kitchen. The book should serve to further ignite foodies and create new ones. It's the perfect example of a modern novelist at full command of her craft.

I haven't followed her career too closely, and Liquor was one I've meant to read, but hadn't, for six years now. I was the poorer unawares. Brite first appeared on my reading radar when I was in high school with her novel, Lost Souls. I read it while I was in high school and, while I can still recall a few scenes from it, which speaks to her capability as a writer even then, in all honesty I have no interest in her earlier horror work anymore.

Liquor is kind of her Swordfishtrombones album or her Stardust Memories in that she had established herself in a genre and then began with Liquor writing books distinctly not in that genre at all. Suddenly from one book to the next it was in an entirely different gear. Although I'm not sure that's entirely correct. There was apparently a book called The Value of X, which follows some of the major characters chronologically before Liquor which I believe came out first. Next in the series is Prime and then Soul Kitchen. Series is probably the wrong term for me to use as this and, as I understand it, each of them stands on its own as a book, and while some of the characters recur one does not need to have read anything else by her to fully enjoy this book as a work of art. There is word that there are three more to come; although through a quick wiki-search I see that Brite has declared a writing hiatus.

Something I do not understand is why this novel was not her breakthrough. Or, rather, I assume it wasn't from my experience. I have no idea why everyone isn't reading this and why, instead, they are reading the sort of things they seem to be reading (or are at the very least buying new. It occurs to me that people may not be reading at all. Gatsby's so clever he's even cut the pages!) I finished reading and ran right out, while my copy of Liquor was still warm from my hands, to buy Prime. I'm in a large college town and could not find a copy. Nor could I find a copy of anything besides Liquor by her. It really should not be that I bought my copy new from the major chain bookstore's shelf in 2009 and it was a first edition from 2003. That alone was a bit of a shock into awareness that reading in America, or at the very least in Chico, is in a bad way in this particular period of history.
Finally I ordered Prime from Lyon Books, the local new bookstore, but I was struck by how much crap is readily available while something like this is a challenge to find. This ought not be. I would highly encourage everyone reading this not only to purchase yourself up a copy, but also to harangue your nearest bookseller for not having her books in stock.

Of course, all of that should change now as I officially award the book the Paul Mathers Award of Literary Merit which further editions can put the little medallion on the cover. You all know the P.M.A.L.M is awarded to books that I think everyone should read and should be in print indefinitely. You also all know that so far the award has caught on with nobody, but that's not going to stop me from giving it out.

Personally I think Liquor is one of the better novels I've read in years. And I say that even after some of the recent novels I've been gushing over on this blog. It is as good as books in the contemporary novel form get. While it's not reinventing the form in any way, I do think I very well may have just finished a contemporary novel that will be read hundreds of years from now. I do not say that often or lightly. I also think the book could potentially have a profound effect on you. I think it could awaken a strong desire for you to cook, to visit New Orleans, to open a restaurant or to decidedly never want to open a restaurant.

I do hope that Brite does not take a very long hiatus. In fact I hope her next one is released right around the time I've caught up with these books I've only just discovered. Regardless of what happens in the future, Poppy Z. Brite has written a fine novel in Liquor.


  1. The state of reading in America is disturbing. Some corners remain vibrant, but they are not corners I'm interested in. Heartthrob Vampires leave me cold -- is that because I'm a heterosexual male? Pubescent wizards leave me apathetic -- an acquaintance says I've lost my inner-child, but I've never been terribly interested in stories set in schools, magical or otherwise, nor have I been interested in books about human beings between the ages of, say, 10 and 20. Maybe I am odd.

    Non-fiction is still fairly strong... if you count Deepak Chopra as non-fiction.

    Here's my fearful prediction: the novel is going to go the way of poetry and art music. The best sellers will continue to re-hash "Roses are red / So let's get in bed" and the "serious" writers will increasingly come from dimly lit academic corners in which the prose becomes so abstracted and technically demanding that only a specialist will dare approach it.

    I hope I'm wrong. The novel has held on better than other art forms, for whatever reason. But in my own personal vacuum of a world, I have not had a chance to actually discuss a work of literature or genre face-to-face with a person for about 12 years. The people around me either don't read or they are fully locked into the Harry Potter and Twilight type books.

  2. I strongly suspect you may be right about the future of serious novels. It would appear that anything serious may be doomed to obscurity. Sort of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 but instead of destroying books they just print bubblegum fiction (and op-ed. How many great unpublished authors have walked past great stacks of Glenn Beck's scowling book cover in the past few months?)

    Which, having a strong distrust of conspiracy theories, I'm a more than a little concerned with what it says about our direction as a people if we are consistently and desperately seeking to lower the bar.

    I think the underlying problem is laziness or at the very least an addiction to ease. Also I think it is once again the signs of a culture that doesn't read at all for the most part. Maybe I'm being a bit snotty here, but I've heard the arguments that Twilight and Harry Potter are getting people reading and my response (internally in my more controlled moments) is "but should we really call that reading?"

    Every time I walk past one of those Twilight displays the words of Patrick Dennis ring in my ears "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"

    All of which is why I try to be a very noisy reader.

  3. I got a bit carried away in responding to you. It became way too long to leave in a comment, so... look thou here:

    It begins with:

    Will I scandalize you if I question the pure virtue of literacy?

  4. Just thought I'd mention that I picked up Liquor for my wife tonight. I'll eventually read it, but my reading queue is bursting at the seams for the moment. She thought it looked good, so thanks!