Saturday, 16 July 2011

Bleeding Raw

At a low point in his career, a chef wrote a crime fiction novel, incorporating characters and settings from real life: drug-addicted chefs, Italian-American mobsters, Feds, informers, sleazy restaurant operators, et al. It didn't do so well.

However, his memoir, an expanded, non-fiction version of his first and failed crime novel, was a different story. "Inexplicably," the chef wrote in a sequel to this book, "it flew off the shelves." Now more famous for his writing and TV appearances, the chef has left his former grimier and sometimes larcenous life and settled down with a wife - his second - and a kid. He'd given up drugs, and later, even tobacco.

That book was how I got to know this chef. Or was it his faux food/travel TV shows? I forgot. Dude's a real raconteur. Unashamedly frank, open, and unbridled. You believe every single word. Coming from a culture that represses freedom of expression, it was like a breath of fresh air.

I speak, of course, of Anthony Michael Bourdain, the American chef, author, TV host and French export with a desire to be Italian-American. The Book, which shall henceforth be known as The Book, is his best-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential.

With all the non-fiction stuff he's written since The Book, only die-hard stalkerish followers of the Brash B know of his other works of (mainly) crime fiction, which feature the archetypes in the world of the American mobster and the kitchens he'd worked in.

I found Bone in the Throat in an unlikely place: Cziplee in Bangsar, months ago. First published in 1995 by Random House imprint Villard, Canongate released this edition in 2008 with an updated author's bio. Obviously, cashing in on his fame, but time will tell if readers and fans will take a shine to his earlier works.

Bone is a slice of the life of Tommy Pagano, sous chef of the Dreadnaught. A mobster's son, Tommy wants nothing to do with the life that ruined his father, so he took up what he likes - cooking. But there's no getting away from his mobster uncle and guardian, Salvatore Pitera aka "Sally Wig", who has always been around since he was a kid, helping him out whenever he could.

So when his uncle calls in a favour one day, Tommy couldn't refuse. Sally wants the Dreadnaught's kitchen for a while for some business. Tommy finds out too late that the "business" was a mob hit, which he witnesses. This was exactly the kind of crap he'd been trying to avoid.

Not long after, the FBI manages to snag the Dreadnaught's chef, a skinny guy with a drug habit, and offer him a chance out of trouble by getting him to persuade Tommy to squeal on his uncle. Tommy's got girlfriend problems too, but that's sauce on the side.

Many characters will sound familiar to those who've read The Book, particularly the chapters on his early career and encounters with mob figures. The character inspired by real-life mob boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante makes an appearance about halfway through and turns out to be more than expected. And... now where have I seen the Dreadnaught's chef before?

Bone take some time to appreciate because of the writing. It's violent, profane (to say the least), and dripping with testosterone, a chaotic compilation of restaurant terms and recipes, mob lingo and to-and-fros between cops and robbers stitched together with an overkill of F-bombs.

The pace is like a speeding subway train, fast and cacophonous, the images outside the window blurred by the speed. Characters come and go, but few of them stick: Tommy, Sally Wig, Harvey the Dreadnaught's owner, Al the federal agent, and the wacky mob boss. The mob and the kitchen are brought to life, warts and all.

Bourdain has come a long way since Bone in the Throat, though his style is still discernible. Compared to his latest, Medium Raw, this book is just bleeding raw, the Brash B at his brashest, unpolished and unrestrained, if that's your kind of thing. Not too sure if it's mine, though after a while, the cursing and swearing becomes immaterial. The character's flaws no longer shock.

All that's left is yes, this is the story of Tommy Pagano, a guy who just wants to take his life into his hands, and it is good. And that, yes, Bourdain is a damn good storyteller.

Bone in the Throat
Anthony Bourdain
Canongate (2008)
340 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84767-054-0


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