Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poppy Z. Brite - Liquor

Poppy Z. Brite spent the nineties writing raw, character driven horror like Drawing Blood and The Lazarus Heart before, in two thousand, jumping genres with Liquor, swapping blood and pain for food and New Orleans. But the book is still about people, and the people have always been Brite's strength. Though it never reaches the emotional power of Drawing Blood, Liquor does similarly meander through a lax plot with some great friends along the way.

Ricky and G-man are great cooks condemned to bounce between kitchens, fired and abused by dumb rulers and dumber bosses. Rickey, the ambitious part of their pair, wants them to strike out on their own. He has an idea, too. In this drink-crazed city, what could draw more people than a restaurant based entirely around liquor? But having the idea's not enough if you don't have the cash to bring it off. They get their break when they meet Lenny Duveteaux, a rich and trendy restaurateur who thinks they are onto something. With his backing, they just might be able to bring Liquor to life.

The strange thing about this restaurant plot is how little tension there is; the book gets just about all of its melodrama from its sideplots (which we'll get to before long). I don't mean to say, however, that the creation of Liquor is boring. Watching Rickey and G-man establish Liquor is like hearing two close friends tell you about their own struggle for their dreams. You care, not because the stakes are so high or the path so twisted, but because you care about the people, and their small problems therefore become fascinating. There's never really any doubt in the reader's mind that Liquor's going to happen, and it's true that a few characters – Lenny in particular – are nicer and more helpful than is strictly probable. But it all feels real, and it all does work.

Rickey and G-man are never subjected to the extreme horrors that Zach and Trevor are in Drawing Blood, and so Brite never quite drags their souls onto the page, kicking and screaming and stained red with blood, as she does there. The characterization here is quieter, less made up of reactions to trauma and love than it is by reactions and quirks, like how, on their first night cooking together after a miserable patch of unemployment: "We're getting killed!" said G-man happily. They weren't really, but he found that he had missed being able to say it (p. 82). All of this is effective and gives the feeling of there being a real human being underneath, but we don't get under their skin. Still, this is only the first of many novels featuring them, so Brite has time yet to force me down into their psyche.

Where prior Brite novels had blood and blows, Liquor has food. At first glance, a frying pan doesn’t seem as powerful a way to plumb emotional depths as a knife, but Brite proves himself an excellent food writer before long. Cooking is tied deeply into the character's lives, often occurs at the novel's points of highest tension, and the descriptions not only prove that Brite knows what he's talking about but that he knows how to spell out a mouth watering meal. His prose is relatively restrained for most of the novel, but meals are the lavish exception to that. Sometimes the description is in the narrative, but other times it falls to dialogue, with Rickey and G-man raving together in a synthesis of character and food writing, as they do after a particularly stunning dinner at the Commander's Palace:

G-man came in and began to undress. "That drum was so moist," he said. The potatoes were golden, but the fish wasn't dry at all."

"Yeah, I was just thinking about that."

"It's the potato crust. The water in the potatoes crisps them and steams the fish at the same time. Real simple, but smart."

"You'd want to have your heat nice and high in a real heavy pan."

"Was that a caper beurre blanc, or were the capers just scattered over it?"

"Just scattered over it. But they were, like, toasted or something."

"Toasted capers,"  mused G-man, sitting naked on the edge of the bed. "They do some wild shit."

"They really do. It's traditional, but it's also wild as hell. I'd love to do stuff like that."

"Looks like you're gonna get your chance." (p. 111)

Despite the laid back nature of its main plot, Liquor is a book with thrills. Alas, they are all shoehorned in and are by far the novel's least convincing aspects, often giving the feeling that Brite didn't quite believe he could pull off a gripping novel without blood and so stapled a psychopath or two to its plot. Rickey's former boss, Mike Mouton, believes Rickey and the world to be conspiring against him. This is kicked into high gear when Rickey and G-man purchase the property for Liquor. Decades back, see, that building held another restaurant; in it, Mike's uncle was gunned down by the mob in what became known as the Red Gravy Murder. If all of that strikes you as wildly implausible, rest assured: it comes off no better in the book. For all their meticulous research, neither Ricky, nor G-man, nor Lenny and his entire organization ever thought to do so much as a cursory google search about the place, and knowledge about the murder seems to shift at random between common and nonexistent. The final showdown, in which Mike barges into Liquor with a gun and takes Rickey hostage, is not so much poorly executed as it is irrelevant. It feels like an epilogue to the book's true emotional climax, the well done opening night of Liquor in which Rickey and G-man cook their dreams into reality.

The novel's blood and guts silliness doesn't end there. Throughout, there is tension between taking Lenny's money and keeping control. In several places, this manifests well as a struggle between practicality and artistic integrity. Then a citizen, paid off by the dastardly Mike, lodges a complaint against their getting a liquor license. In response, Lenny sends goons to his house. They prepare to rough him up. Before they get a chance, he dies. This murder begins on page two hundred and forty-four of a three hundred and thirty-nine page novel. Until page two hundred and forty-four, the book, besides one event twenty years ago and a psychopath mumbling in a corner, consists of chefs making cool food. Throwing a murder into that, one perpetuated by an otherwise sane character and one that doesn't even become a particularly crucial plot point, is a tonal shift analogous to a How I Met Your Mother episode featuring a Lovecraftian subplot. When Mike first wonders if Rickey and G-man might have had the complainer killed, we are told: In some hazy part of his mind, Mike knew he was crossing the boundaries of real paranoia (p. 267). That's perfectly accurate; Mike's taking a swan dive from sanity at the time. But so has the rest of the narrative.

Liquor doesn't quite hit the emotional highs of some of Brite's previous work, though it is, oddly enough, closest to her normal standards when sticking far from her usual territory of madness and pain. Still, the story of Rickey and G-man is compelling and the food delicious. I shall be returning for seconds of the duo before too long with the next novel in the sequel.


  1. Just thought to mention that Poppy Z. Brite is actually a woman, so you should change the gender, when you refer to her.

  2. Brite was a woman but is no longer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poppy_Z_Brite#Personal_life