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Desperate Lives 

It all begins with a bad review. The new food critic of the Cornet, a free paper that covers New Orleans entertainment, food and politics, accuses the owners and chefs of Liquor -- John Rickey and Gary 'G-Man' Stubbs -- of being untalented pretty boys turning out gimmicky food to impress tourists. Even worse, the critic implies that Rickey and G-Man are the pawns of Lenny Duveteaux, a chef from Maine who embraced Creole cuisine and became New Orleans' leading culinary ambassador by selling his charming personality to television audiences.

Poppy Z. Brite's latest novel, Prime (Three Rivers), continues the story of Rickey and G-Man from last year's Liquor. Two years after opening Liquor, an upscale Mid-City restaurant that includes at least a dash of booze in every dish, the boys from the Ninth Ward have become nationally celebrated chefs. The Times-Picayune has given Liquor a four-bean review. Rickey has won a James Beard Foundation award. Gourmet magazine has run a glossy photo of the handsome chef. Until the negative review appears, everything seems to have gone right for the two young men who have been best friends and lovers nearly all their lives.

As they learn more about the Cornet's critic, it becomes clear that the review has more to do with politics than food. The new critic, Humphrey Treat, is the son of longtime New Orleans District Attorney Placide Treat. Lenny suspects that the review is intended to undermine his plans to bankroll his personal attorney's run against Treat in an upcoming election.

It's true that Treat doesn't like someone threatening his job, but he attacks Lenny mainly because he's an outsider. Treat hates the notion that, for many people around the country, the Maine-born Lenny embodies New Orleans. He can't stand the city's embrace of Lenny. He seethes when he reads in USA Today that Lenny called many of New Orleans' old-line restaurants irrelevant dinosaurs. 'Even if this were true,' Treat thinks, 'you didn't say such things to the national press. The man had to be stopped.' In order to stop him, Treat trumps up some charges against Lenny and has the celebrity chef arrested.

Rickey and G-Man always planned to buy out Lenny and own Liquor outright. Now that their silent partner and primary investor might end up in jail, the need to raise money and separate themselves from Lenny becomes urgent. When Rickey receives a lucrative offer to update the menu at a struggling Dallas restaurant, it seems like the perfect opportunity to raise some cash.

Prime continues Brite's move from Gothic horror to foodie fiction. Her carefully sculpted prose can turn ecstatic when she describes a good meal. In Dallas, when Rickey tastes the best steak Texas has to offer, Brite's exquisite attention to detail creates an unforgettable moment: 'First there was the beef taste he knew, with its elements of iron and carbon, deeper than usual but still familiar. Following that was an almost cheesy flavor -- not unpleasant, but rather like a good Parmigiano-Reggiano when it started to get old and grainy.' Brite's husband, Chris, is a local chef, and the author has an intimate knowledge of what goes on in the back of the house at a restaurant. She shows obvious love for the sometimes-crazy characters that inhabit New Orleans' kitchens and work long hours to make sure that the customers can have a relaxing meal.

Prime also captures the fabric of daily life in New Orleans. Readers from outside the city, who believe that New Orleanians lead a life of endless indulgence, will get a sense of the traditions and social conventions that make the city utterly unlike any other place in America. Fancy restaurants have their share of wealthy Uptown women 'pretending to appreciate their fine dining experience but really just liking the fact that they could get soused in a fancy place.' New Orleans may be a culinary destination, but 'unfamiliar ethnic cuisines and chefs trying to cook outside the Creole box [have] trouble finding a foothold.' When G-Man crashes the party of a local rap star, he notes that 'in New Orleans, white people either got used to being a minority or moved to the suburbs.'

Part of what makes Prime such a joy is spending more time with Rickey and G-Man. Brite writes genre fiction, and Prime is a page-turning thriller. Her characters have real depth, though, and by the time I finished Prime I felt like I knew them as well as my friends and family.

An undercurrent of sadness also runs through Prime. Throughout the book, Rickey is forced to imagine his life without G-Man. His fidelity is tested when an older chef makes a pass at him; Rickey remains faithful, but he can't stop fantasizing about the man. The end of Prime takes a turn worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The final action sequence might strain credibility. Brite has created such believable characters, however, that it's not the high-speed events that kept me reading but the feeling of dread I shared with G-Man at the thought of losing Rickey. Brite has announced two more novels about Rickey and G-Man. Here's to a few more years of watching their lives unfold.

click to enlarge Poppy Z Brite's Prime picks up where her first work of foodie fiction, Liquor, began.
  • Poppy Z Brite's Prime picks up where her first work of foodie fiction, Liquor, began.
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