||[May. 21st, 2005|12:30 am]
After some consideration I have decided not to review The Dark Tower series. We’re talking about seven books and I don’t have it in me to review a whole series at once. I will say a few things about the books and leave it at that. |
The Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah were the weakest books in the series (Calla being the weakest). There’s a certain sloppiness in these two books that I felt harmed the story. I felt there were situations, weapons, characters and dialogue that steered the story toward its conclusion without a pointed concern for logic. To suspend disbelief, I feel the fantasy and fiction must be logical within their own context. It’s hard to point my finger at what bothered me in these two books because Mr. King is aware of the contrivances in his story and even hints at his purpose in including improbable situations to move the plot along. Having said that, I must point out that these two books did seem to be written off-the-cuff. I think that is what bothered me… Mr. King had no idea how the story would go until he wrote it. I could almost see Mr. King’s thought process as I read these books, but I’m not so sure it was the best choice for these books.
I’m torn because I enjoyed the Dark Tower mythos and loved the characters, but I thought some of the plot was born out of convenience. When things happen to the characters in such a torrent, when such odds are stacked against them, it’s a relief to know that the answer or solution is not always there. It’s good to know that God won’t just drop from the sky when you most need him.
Agh… I guess this is why I didn’t want to review the series. On the one hand I feel Mr. King could have used some organization in this particular series, but on the other hand I feel he is writing better than ever in his old age. I don’t know of too many writers who love to outline their work prior to sitting at their computers but something about this series cried for an outline.
- The clever ending was appropriate and cathartic.
The inclusion of themes and characters, as well as situations, from his prior work offered a constant thrill for me. I was glad to see Father Callahan return to the page after his departure from the town of Salem’s Lot. I was also glad to see Ted Brautigan appear in the last book. I’ve always loved it when writers create their own universe in their stories. Not all books are related but all of their characters coexist in the same universe. It’s pleasant to hear an old name in a new story and it consequently enriches a character since the reader has a better sense of their past by having read about them in other stories. In the end, it is about the characters and I doubt that when a good writer finds a beloved character, he or she can say everything there is to say in just one book.
Speaking of recurring characters, let’s move on to Poppy’s latest book.
* * *
I finished reading Poppy Z. Brite’s Prime in two days. It’s always delightful when one has no other concerns while reading a book than to complete it, even though the ending of said book comes way too soon. Poppy has yet to write a doorstopper and I mourn for that. Lost Souls and Drawing Blood do weigh in as the heaviest books she has yet written, but quantity has never been a factor in Poppy’s books.
First, I’d like to say that I promised myself to dedicate a few months in the future to re-read all of Poppy’s work, in order to revisit some forgotten moments in my life. I’ve said it before in here: Poppy’s work was instrumental in my life (it still is), back in 1993 and I still remember the visceral reaction to her prose which I experienced when I read Lost Souls. It was writing unlike any I had encountered before.
I never saw Lost Souls as a horror novel per se. The struggle to find one’s place in the waste land of youth and wanton abandon while surrounded by outside forces that vie for a piece of your identity is horrific. The horror in Lost Souls, if I remember correctly (which is why I will reread it very soon) is in the repercussions of misguided choices, belief in one’s imagined strength and the inevitable harm of youth. Vampires have never been particularly horrific to me. If anything, they represent the opportunistic, weaker side of ourselves that we find so hard to resist. They are the laziness that robs our energy. They are the incertitude that forces us to wander until we arm ourselves with the will to face life on our own, to give up codependency. If one pays attention, one will see that it’s always the weakling who gets infected by the vampire. It’s the lost soul who falls to the charms of an easy life.
Then again, one could always argue that Poppy has been writing about foodies from the very beginning. Zillah, Twig & Molochai are discriminate in what they eat (and drink), though their palate isn’t as refined as Poppy’s most recent characters. Let’s not forget: they are smokers.
(Some spoilers to follow)
Rickey and G-Man don’t live an easy life. They’ve co-owned a restaurant, Liquor, on Broad Street in New Orleans, near the courthouse and jail building (if you can risk gorging yourself on liquor-laced food and drinking to your heart’s content and then attempt to get in your car next to the courthouse and jail then I imagine you are the perfect patron for Rickey and G-man’s restaurant—you have titanium balls!), and they’ve gotten a bad review. While the journalist has made an effort to praise some choices in the menu, he casts a shadow on the relationship between the restaurant’s financial investor, Lenny Duveteaux, and his chefs. His review implies that there must be some reason why Lenny has taken on two unknown chefs (to revive his reputation or to maintain his chokehold on the New Orleans restaurant scene, he infers), but this reason has remained a secret.
As the chefs and the investor try to sort out a way to settle their issue with the presumptuous journalist (who turns out to be a novice food writer), New Orleans’s District Attorney, Treat Placide (a great name for this impish character) spends every waking moment securing his reelection, rather than doing his job, like any DA worth his salt. Placide’s rival in the run for his position is Oscar De La Cerda, Lenny Duveteaux’s personal attorney. It is no surprise to see that soon after the appearance of the review on the Cornet, Placide Treat accuses Lenny of “conspiracy to commit fraud, injuring public records, and failure to pay sales taxes” and sends him to jail. Another day in the life of corrupt politicians in New Orleans.
The review and the charges send Rickey over the edge. He wants to break his association with Lenny but the two chefs, who are not particularly greedy or selfish, do not have the money to buy him out. It falls upon them to find a way to earn some money but the options are limited. It is around this time that Rickey receives a letter postmarked in Dallas from a restaurateur, Frank Firestone, offering him a one-week consulting gig to revamp his restaurant’s menu. To accept that invitation means a reunion with a person he hasn’t heard of since his days at the CIA in New York: Cooper Stark, the hotshot chef who once dazzled a naïve John Rickey with his celebrity and good looks. The restaurant has fallen unseen by the unrefined Texan coots who just want a meal that can satisfy their extravagant yet pedestrian taste. Firestone is a man who thinks brunch is the proper start for a day of business and who wears the skin of his state’s favorite animal on his feet. He is sure that Cooper’s rather Yankee menu has turned off prospective diners and he knows Rickey is the man to help him. Rickey has won a James Beard award, he works right next door, and his restaurant has succeeded.
Putting aside his rancor for Cooper’s improprieties and with the level-headed support of his lover, Rickey heads to Dallas to rework the menu for Frank Firestone. He creates a menu that features beef at its core and suggests a new name for the restaurant: Prime.
As Rickey works in Dallas, Placide Treat’s machinations are getting darker and upon Rickey’s return we are treated with the true extent of his desperation and cruelty. I won’t give away the story (I’ve recounted what you can read on the back cover of the book, if only with more detail), but I will share my pleasure with Poppy’s handling of this tale of suspense. Poppy loves a good mystery and it shows in this book: the tension bubbles like (I’m trying to resist food similes here…), well, hot soup in a pressure-cooker and the rewards are just. A scene in a Dallas apartment reminded me of the Poppy of yesteryear and I know those fans who liked her work then will like this particular sequence of events.
It’s a great story, a strong book, but the best is saved for those small moments when Poppy grants an inside view at what I’m convinced is just a tough world. The more I read about chefs the more I think about fishermen. Chefs and fishermen spend their lives in constant stress, working as a team to earn their living (one lazy fisherman can ruin a whole day’s catch, as I imagine one slow chef can back up the whole kitchen and restaurant), drinking until their livers hurt, and ragging on each other to cope with the tension of their jobs. It’s macho work, to run a kitchen, and Rickey and G-man belie any sexual stereotype by their hardy, tough-guy approach to work ethics and fine dining.
It struck me how involved Rickey and G-man are in the restaurant scene. These guys work hard and hardly ever party (I’m not counting end-of-the-night drinking sessions with the guys). They do not have any gay friends and Rickey bristles at the sight of a rainbow flag. I admit, I sometimes wonder why they don’t have one single gay friend (I couldn’t really read Dirty King’s sexual vibe—I feel that was purposefully left in the air). They have been together since their teen years and have not dated other people. It was interesting to me to see how Rickey has not been able to let go of his guilt concerning his tryst with Coop, yet no mention is made of G-man’s encounter in The Value of X with a dancer while Rickey was at the CIA. Granted, it is hinted that nothing may have happened, but… At any rate, it’s an insular gay life they live, without a frame of reference about men-men relationships, but despite that the relationship has flourished on trust and genuine love. I do wonder if they have a secret stash of hardcore porn somewhere in their house in Marengo Street (all signs point to ‘no,’ as the only incriminating thing found in a covert search of their property is a bit of pot.)
(Forgive my interjections and parentheses. As you can see, I can’t help myself.)
Kitchen work can make one cranky but thank God for the caustic sense of humor of cooks and colleagues. I have to praise Poppy’s ear for witty ripostes and cracks. I think I laughed out loud every ten pages or so. Here are a few samples:
- When Rickey and G-man are having dinner at the Stubb’s house, G-man’s brother eyes the food that his mother has displayed, such as “pannéed veal with a delicate golden breading, spaghetti with red gravy, green beans smothered with bacon and onions, stuffed artichokes, and eggplant baked with shrimp and mozzarella.” Salivating, Henry says: “This is practically health food. Look at all these vegetables.” (page 34)
-“You remember that next time one of ‘em sends back his tuna tartare because it’s raw.” (on “urbane sophisticates of New Orleans,” page 49)
The one-liners and jabs are sparingly used throughout the book but are constant and true. Nothing comes across as forced or unnatural. If anything, read this book for the subtle, biting humor. It’s great to read a book that can both keep you tittering and in suspense.
I loved this book and I’m looking forward to the next chapter in Rickey and G-man’s story. Like Stephen King, Poppy has created her own universe in her novels and familiar characters are running into each other. In this novel, for example, we get to reencounter a character from The Lazarus Heart, Linda Getty, who stops by Liquor with Woofer Scagliano, Treat Placide’s lackey. In Poppy’s New Orleans two serial killers once killed an Asian boy named Tran. In Poppy’s New Orleans Luke Ransom once broadcasted his tirades and rants from a swamp on pirated airwaves. In Poppy’s New Orleans, a band of vampires once stormed into town in a van. Everything is possible. It’s possible to make it selling liquor right next door to the courthouse. It’s possible for two guys in love to do what they want to do without sacrificing their integrity and souls. And it’s possible for a lithe, short female writer to show everyone she can be more of a dude than you. Read Prime and you’ll see what I mean: a dude wrote this book.
And he has bourbon in his breath. You know what that means: he's got titanium balls.