Anthony Bourdain’s New York Times best-selling novel from a decade ago, Kitchen Confidential, is very similar to his current Travel Channel TV show, No Reservations. Bourdain is at his spectacular and entertaining best when it comes to giving a glimpse of the culinary life — and the food, drugs and alcohol that are the main ingredients. But, like a kid in a candy store, Bourdain can’t help himself with his fan-boy worship of gourmet chefs — and restaurant name-dropping — known only to the New York foodie crowd. He writes about the importance of the food and culture of immigrants of various nationalities who work in his kitchen and his TV show features globe-trotting trips with numerous scenes in working-class markets, restaurants and food trucks. Yet the one thing Bourdain seems to relish the most is a chef’s tasting and ass-kissing session in the most upscale and pretentious restaurant in that particular city’s foodie-insider landscape. Of course, one must give Bourdain credit for his chameleon-like ability to fit in perfectly at dive bar in a back alley and Michelin Four Star restaurant — all in the same afternoon. Confidentially and without reservation, I’ll take the Bourdain in the leather jacket who is slamming bourbon, munching on chili dogs and talking about tattoos and body piercings with a bunch of seedy locals, the same Bourdain of the 80s and 90s we see in Kitchen Confidential.
Posts Tagged New York
In the fourth novel by Richard Price, The Breaks, we meet Peter Keller, a recent college graduate who tries to figure out what to do with his life after not being accepted into law school. He moves back to New York City and lives at home while working various jobs, before returning to his college town, which has changed in the couple of years since he left. At first, this book reminded me of the early George Pelecanos series featuring Nick Stefanos, who was also a young adult trying to figure out what he was going to do in life. And while some of the urban New York City scenes featuring drugs and alcohol were Pelecanos-esque, to me the book hit the breaks in the middle when Keller entered a relationship with the ex-wife of a colleague and pal. After reading previous Price novels featuring gritty urban action, I expected more of the same. But Price, like Keller, seems to searching for his identity as he matures. The Breaks is similar to this review: Decent, but could have been better.
Lee Child has outdone himself in his fourth novel, Running Blind. Sure, sure his enigmatic hero, Jack Reacher, is still the solitary figure with a sense of justice who protects the Everyday Joe. In this installment, he viciously takes out a couple of thugs trying to shake down the owner of his favorite Italian joint in New York City. And when he is done with the beating, Jack sends a clever message to their boss. But this book isn’t just the hard-boiled Reacher we know and love. Instead, Child takes this novel to another level — to Michael Connelly levels of mystery writing — and we follow Reacher as uses his training as a military policeman to help the Feds solve a string of murders. Crimes for which Reacher would be the prime suspect, if he hadn’t been in the Big Apple at the time and under surveillance. All in all, this is a first-rate mystery novel and nothing more can really said about the plot without giving it away. After reading a lion’s share of mystery novels, I’m not usually surprised by the ending. I have to admit, Child and Reacher totally got me on this one and I can’t wait for the next adventure.
Richard Price returns again with another gritty portrayal of New York City in the 1970s. In Ladies’ Man, the main character is Kenny Becker, a door-to-door salesman with a golden tongue and a gift for relationship problems. We follow a week in Kenny’s life as he tries to repair one relationship while looking for others in various different Big Apple nightlife scenarios. Kenny visits singles bars, peep shows, massage parlors and even ventures down to Christopher Street — home of the seedy alternative lifestyle bars — but the most memorable locale may be Fantasia, which was the scene of a talent contest and reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about famous Studio 54 nightclub. While in line for Fantasia, Kenny meets a cat named Jackie di Paris, who is described as: “A big solid blond dude….He’s built like a fullback and wore a black vinyl, lightweight, wet-look jacket over a floral body shirt open to the sternum. He had enough chest hair for a national park and six strands of gold chains were crisscrossing under his collarbone….His dark brown chest fur clashed with his metallic blond hairdo.” While 70s retro may be cool in today’s movies, there’s just no topping Price’s narrative on the 70s people and places that he wrote in the 70s. Like Price’s first two books, Ladies’ Man is an eye opener when it comes to the seedy side of the city, and once again, the main character comes to the realization that he needs to grow up and escape the temptation of the Big Apple.
The debut novel by Jim Fusilli, Closing Time a features a rugged New York private investigator named Terry Orr. Sounds like your standard detective fare, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. Orr, at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, is built like a linebacker and he does get into several skirmishes in the book. But what sets Orr apart from your typical gumshoe is his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Gabriella. Still mourning the murder of his wife and infant son, Orr struggles to return to his writing career and cope with the fact that he must now raise his soon-to-be teenage daughter. When a cab driver is murdered and Orr finds the body, he is driven to investigate the homicide as he identifies with the crime all too well. The investigation takes Orr into the dangerous underworld of the Big Apple, as well as what I’d call a rather unique art scene that seems limited to New York City. Along the way, we meet a couple of Orr’s rather interesting friends — Leo, a corpulent bartender from New Orleans who reads Times-Picayune religiously and Diddio, a hippie music critic who takes Orr to several night spots around town. Like Lawrence Sanders and Lawrence Block before him, Fusilli is able to capture the culture and essence of New York while weaving together an intriguing story filled with interesting characters. While I can’t identify with the city and doubt I could live there, I enjoyed peeking into the Big Apple and watching Orr unravel this mystery. Kudos to Fusilli for showing the character of the city through the city and its characters.
Similar to The Wanderers, Richard Price‘s first novel that was later made into a movie, Bloodbrothers is another intense and somewhat graphic look at a New York City teenager from a working-class family, this time set in the mid-1970s. As you can tell from his name, Stony De Coco is a rugged 18-year-old, torn between following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrician or following his heart and working with kids in a hospital. Why the soft spot for children? Well, it turns out Stony’s eight-year-old brother, Albert, is anorexic due to physical and emotional abuse from his mother. Stony’s job is to protect Albert and helping children comes to natural to him. Stony is also a natural when it comes to adapting to the adult lifestyle, as he already smokes and drinks, often with his father and uncle Chubby, who is also an electrician. Scenes involving the trio often show the seedy side of the Big Apple. Times Square porn shops, hookers and muggers in Spanish Harlem are all on display, as well as typical old-school things everyone remembers from the ’70s such as large Afros, platform shoes, kung fu and even a discussion of who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Shaft. Another interesting aspect of the book is the portrayal of the construction site. If you’ve seen the Soprano’s, this is a very similar construction site, minus the mob. A lot of money is being made and very little work is being done. Thanks to his old man, Stony gets into the union but if he gives up his apprentice job, he may not get another chance. Similar to his first novel, the language used by Price’s characters can be course, obscene and often racist. There is also a hearty dose of sex in the book and none of the characters seem to have much in the way of morals, which makes this another gritty, urban novel that is enjoyable but also eye-opening at times.
Like just about every kid born in the 1970s, I collected baseball cards in my youth. (In fact, with a quick glance, I know that the two prominent cards on the book’s cover are Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg Topps rookie cards.) In the 1980s, people made fortunes from cardboard as the prices for certain rookie cards skyrocketed. That market crashed in the 1990s and today, most cards are worth a fraction of what they were in their heyday. As you might suspect from the title, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams focuses on the theft of several valuable baseball cards. Enter Bernie Rhodenbarr, the book’s main character, who just happens to be a burglar. Only Bernie didn’t steal the cards. As in the previous five books in the series, Bernie tries to clear his name from one heist, while committing several others. Like baseball and baseball cards, this book is old school, similar to other Lawrence Block novels. A drink at lunch, coffee with every meal and cops on the take, this New York City is just as one would suspect it was before Rudy Giuliani cleaned things up. Block also flaunts the intellectual side of the Big Apple, as there are numerous references to literature and the arts and Bernie’s best friend is a female with an alternative lifestyle. (In an interesting touch, Rhodenbarr owns a used bookstore, which gives Block the ability to freely write about other authors. The running joke encompassing pages of dialogue in this book is Sue Grafton‘s Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.) As in all Block novels, the pace is steady and never frantic, the story builds to a climax and then things wrap up very nicely in the end. And while you may think you know where things are headed, there is always a twist or turn that you just hadn’t thought of. Which, of course, makes you keep coming back for more.
I’m a huge fan of the HBO series, The Wire, and a writer friend recently loaned me a couple of books by Richard Price, one of the show’s magnificent writers. Since George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane are two of my favorite novelists, and since those two also wrote episodes of The Wire, it seems to reason that I will also like the works of Price. So far, things are looking promising. Several years ago, I saw the movie The Wanderers and thought it was decent. As is usually the case, the book turned out to be better than the movie. Was it a masterpiece? Many will say yes, although I don’t normally read “urban” fiction and my bias toward mystery and espionage leads me to label the book as pretty good, especially for a first novel. Similar to Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.) and Lehane (Boston), Price writes about a city he grew up in and knows intimately, in this case the Bronx borough of New York City. Set in 1963, the book follows the everyday lives of several members of The Wanderers, a teenage street gang. Disturbing at times, the book’s raw sex, extreme violence and often racist dialogue can be eye-opening and not surprisingly, the movie was toned down a bit. (Speaking of movies, for some reason I kept thinking of A Bronx Tale, set in the same time period.) Naturally, the book features gangs fighting each other. But the toughest battle for The Wanderers — and all of their rivals — seems to be gang cohesion as members mature and ultimately leave the group. As Price becomes a more seasoned writer, I can’t wait to read some of his later books, including Clockers, which was made into a movie by Spike Lee.
It’s hard to believe it’s been over 40 years since Lawrence Block wrote The Scoreless Thai, his fourth book featuring ultra-intellectual master spy Evan Tanner. As one can surmise from the title, most of the book takes place in Thailand, where Tanner comes to the rescue of a Kenyan princess who has been taken hostage. Tanner also befriends a sex-starved native whose lack of success is the basis for the title. In addition to Thailand, Tanner’s travels also take him to Laos and Korea, which were not popular destinations in 1968. (Two things struck me about Tanner’s travels. I recently spent 17 hours in the air flying from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo to Bangkok. Tanner’s 1968 flight from New York to San Francisco to Honolulu to Tokyo to Bangkok must have taken twice as much time. Once in Bangkok, Tanner was greeted by a customs agent who searched his suitcase. In modern day Bangkok, there were no customs agents.) Like previous books in the series, Block pens a zany espionage adventure featuring a lead character who cannot sleep thanks to a brain injury. Not to worry, Tanner uses this extra time for intellectual pursuits such as writing a doctoral thesis on “the socioeconomic implications of the Boxer Rebellion” for a lazy NYU grad student or writing articles for a variety of ethnic newsletters. Like his lead character Tanner, Block is a prolific writer and I always enjoy his novels featuring a variety of New York City-based lead characters with interesting quirks and lives.
When you pick up a Lee Child novel, you know what you’re getting. Mystery and some violence to go along with your mystery. In Tripwire, the third installment of the Jack Reacher series, the hero is in Key West hanging out, digging ditches and working as a bouncer in a strip club. In typical Reacher fashion, he vastly enjoys this drifter lifestyle. Soon, his peaceful existence is interrupted when he is sought out by a private detective and a couple of tough guys. Reacher winds up in New York City, where he reacquaints himself with the daughter of his mentor in the military police. And they unearth a plot that involves the military and MIA soldiers in Vietnam. (The movie Basic, with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, has some very similar — almost identical — plot elements and if screenwriter James Vanderbilt didn’t read this book, I’d be very surprised.) Reacher has an uncanny way of finding trouble, and by this third installment, the reader is hip to the modus operandi in this series — the drifter is minding is own business until some criminal makes the mistake of awakening the sleeping giant, so to speak. Despite the predicitibility of the violence, this book — and the two previous novels — are entertaining in a Rambo meets Die Hard sort of way. And when I’m in the mood for more of this molotov cocktail style of writing, I’ll pick up the next Jack Reacher novel.