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Onyx reviews: Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z.
Some people classify Poppy Z. Brite's recent novels as mysteries, but that's
not exactly right. Though her "Liquor" books (Soul Kitchen is the
third installment) contain crimes, the stories aren't driven by a need to solve
the mysteries. The wrongdoings prevalent in these books are of the type that
seems to be part and parcel of doing business and living in the Crescent City.
Grift, money laundering, blackmail, political influence-for-sale, protection,
gambling and the like.
In Soul Kitchen, protagonists Ricky and G-man are cruising along on the success
of their liquor-themed restaurant. Liquor is one of New Orleans' success stories
in a city where eating establishments have a tendency to erupt like flames and
flicker out just as fast. The two life-long friends are, perhaps, resting on
their laurels a little and soon learn how quickly a restaurant's reputation can
be dulled or tarnished. A simple chain of events imperils their prestige.
Ricky wrenches his back wrestling with a fifty-pound bag of oysters, an injury
that shapes the rest of the novel. Since he and G-man have no health insurance,
he relies on the medical advice of a regular customer and business associate who
finds it to his advantage to get Ricky hooked on Vicodin. The pain, lack of
sleep and his response to the drugs and increasing dependence upon them
interferes with his relationship with G-man leads him to badger Tanker, the
restaurant's desert specialist, into quitting. Pride keeps both men from seeking
reconciliation, even after Ricky and G-man discover that no one else knows how
to recreate some of their signature deserts.
Ricky becomes an absentee partner when he agrees to another consulting job, this
time helping set up a "destination" restaurant at a casino on Lake
Pontchartrain. They hire Milford Goodman, fresh out of a lengthy stint in prison
after being wrongly convicted of the murder of his previous restaurant partner,
to fill in the gaps at Liquor. No one else wants anything to do with
Milford-even though the black man has been exonerated of killing his white,
female associate-and Ricky and G-man take some heat for hiring him.
Milford was a highly esteemed chef before his incarceration, so Ricky enlists
his help in coming up with the theme for the casino restaurant. They decide on
Soul Kitchen, which will serve the home-style cooking of many different
countries. Ricky isn't particularly fond of his business partners in this
endeavor, but he and Ricky are saving up money to buy out their original Liquor
financier, Lenny, who still owns twenty-five percent of the restaurant.
The power and strength of these books comes from the long-term relationship
between Ricky and G-man. Their faithfulness and loyalty is occasionally tested,
almost to the breaking point, but readers believe in them and in their long-term
future together. They don't spend a lot of time analyzing their relationship,
nor do they spend much energy defending it to people who are less than
supportive of their lifestyle. They just do like most other people, continue to
stay together and support each other day after day after day.
Brite knows the New Orleans tradition and the restaurant business-her husband is
a chef and she frequently posts on her blog about some of the more exotic meals
she has in that city. She knows that, outside of work, chefs only rarely cook
gourmet meals for themselves or for their loved ones. She knows how a kitchen
works, and the ways in which it can go so badly wrong. She understands the
pompous self-importance of some of the industry's auteurs and she also understands chronic pain and the allure of certain drugs to hold it
In the year since Katrina, Brite has become one of New Orleans' strongest
advocates, writing at length about the city's recover on her blog and penning
opinion pieces for both the local newspaper and for national publications. Soul
Kitchen was completed the night before the storm struck the city. The next
installment, Dead Shrimp Blues, will reportedly deal, in part, with the
hurricane and its aftermath.
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