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Onyx reviews: Prime by Poppy Z. Brite

Prime is Poppy Z. Brite’s third novel featuring Rickey and G-man (Gary, but no one calls him that, just like no one uses Rickey’s first name, John), lifelong friends, lovers and partners embroiled in the food industry. The previous book, Liquor, recounted their ascent from the kitchens of various New Orleans eateries to opening their own place with the backing of Lenny, an affable but shady financier. Their gimmick is simple and eminently logical considering the milieu: Everything on the menu contains alcohol.

Flash forward several years: Liquor is now part of the culinary establishment and Chef Rickey is a celebrity, much to his chagrin. He just wants to make good food and knows that the secret to success is in appealing to the locals. An impressed tourist might return to a restaurant once or twice a year, whereas a local might come back a few times each month.

Brite, whose husband is a chef, concocts tension early in the book, then puts it on the back burner to simmer. Lenny is financing D.A. Placide Treat’s chief opponent in an upcoming election, so Treat launches an investigation into possible fraud and tax evasion. Lenny is far from innocent, but this is New Orleans, where many worse offenders merit the D.A.’s attention.

Lenny’s legal problems fast-track Rickey and G-man’s dream of owning Liquor outright. An opportunity to earn some quick money as a consultant lures Rickey to Dallas to help chef Cooper Stark revamp his menu. Shortly after Rickey and G-man graduated from high school, their parents tried to split them up by sending Rickey to culinary school in New York, where Stark was on the faculty. Their interaction ended awkwardly, and Rickey isn’t sure he wants to see the older man again.

Though Rickey and G-man are a great team, personally and professionally, in many ways they are opposites. Rickey, like the drink, is unsweetened. Volatile, he is the product of a rough neighborhood where kids learned early how to fight to defend themselves. He’s the type who would (and does) throw his cell phone into the lake after receiving a bad review (which conveniently leaves him without a phone for the rest of the book). G-man is calm, sensitive, mostly unflappable, and serious, the ballast to Rickey’s hot air balloon. Long ago he abandoned the Catholic Church because it condemned his lifestyle, but he can’t shake completely free of it.

Their relationship isn’t perfect; they keep secrets and tell lies, but they also make selfless sacrifices. They’ve never been with anyone else, which makes them prone to curiosity, insecurity and jealousy. G-man wonders whether something will happen between Rickey and Stark in Dallas. So does Rickey.

Stark’s menu is exquisite, but no one in Dallas wants to try it. Rickey dreams up another gimmick involving steak (hence the book’s title) and turns the restaurant around overnight, but he wonders if he left it worse off than before he arrived.

The suspense simmering on the back burner bubbles over when several seemingly disconnected ingredients start blending together. A suspicious death and its implications tell Rickey and G-man that larger things are going on around them than either suspected.

The book’s biggest problem is the author’s habit of skipping ahead and then backtracking to recount what happened in the interim. While this approach works sometimes, during the book’s climax it does not serve the story well. When two characters are thrust into a volatile and potentially deadly situation, the story leaps to the denouement, missing a prime opportunity to create a spicy, exciting scene. It seems like the author decided to wrap the story up in a hurry, robbing the crisis of immediacy and suspense.

This minor quibble aside, Prime is a full course meal of a book chock full of memorable characters, a sensitively depicted and well understood relationship, an insider’s depiction of one of America’s most celebrated (and perhaps misunderstood) cities, and enough tempting entrees to send readers straight from the book to the nearest five-star restaurant.

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