Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review- Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite

I just finished the third book in Poppy Z. Brite's Liquor trilogy. It's titled Soul Kitchen and it is at least as excellent a novel as the other two in the series (which, if you haven't yet, you can observe me gushing over here and here), although I think I might make the argument that this is the best of the three - with a minor stipulation. The minor stipulation is simply this: I think you probably do want to have read the other two before getting to this one.

Not that you need to. In all, we are plunged right into the action and characters are developed by observing them in situations, how they act and react. The exposition is tight, light (for those who have already read the other two) and reads like part of the story rather than explaining history from previous books. However, I think that having read the other two builds the love of the characters one should have going into this one.

This one opens on a murder and a man just being exonerated after a long prison sentence. The man is a brilliant chef, and John Rickey, our protagonist, hires him on to the kitchen at their restaurant Liquor. Needless to say, the effects of the murder are still rippling and our story mainly hinges around said effects. Also, Rickey is injured; Rickey is hired to another consulting gig; G-Man has an issue involving a co-worker; and Lenny tries to maneuver two very strong wills back together. In the process, he kind of falls apart in some surprising ways. Lenny is one of my favorite characters in the series and I thought his established character was very well used in this one. He pushed the story forward beautifully while experiencing quite a character arch himself. There may be more than one meaning to the title, but I'll leave you to have fun with that. There are themes of bigotry, class, addiction, communication, alienation, unfulfilled dreams, severed relationships, loss. None of which are smashed over our head. All of which are handled masterfully.

The food descriptions in this one are beyond the pale. From the alluring to the fascinating and finally to the ridiculous. The denouement in the Polonius Room is amazingly written, a catharsis for so much of what we see in modern fine dining without being on one hand cartoonish or on the other too apologetic toward contrived cuisine (ugh, sorry. My alliteration switch seems to be broken.) Really, that scene (and especially coupled with the scene immediately after with Rickey's reaction to the man on the street) is of the type that makes this series so well done, such a cut above normal contemporary literary fare.

Not too put too fine a point on it, but I do think that these are some of the more impressive contemporary novels out there today. I would highly encourage everyone to read all of them. They are well worth it and very rewarding.

We have reached what is currently the end of the series, although I've read the author expressing that more are within the realm of possibility. When I opened my copy of this book, just after the title page was a dedication explaining that the book was finished the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This is why there is not a fourth book in the series as of my writing this. And I really don't know what to say. Everything I think about writing seems really trite. There's a line in the book, a little throwaway description of where a retired doctor lives, and it's right next to a levee. In retrospect, it's such a haunting thing to have in that book at that time and serves to show what a completely different world Louisiana is from pre-2005 to post-2005. I think Katrina was one of the greatest, largest tragedies in America and one of the most devastating domestic events in my lifetime.

So, I'm sorry to end this series on such a dark note. I don't know if Poppy Z. Brite will write another novel. Needless to say there's a lot of turmoil that comes from surviving such a thing. I can say with full confidence that I think she's one of the finest living American authors. If she doesn't write another novel, she's written three of the finest contemporary American novels I know of. I would and frequently do recommend them to everyone.

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