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Onyx reviews: Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite

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 at bay.

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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