Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Tropic Tempers

Although it looks unrelated, Gone Bamboo is a sequel of sorts to Bone in the Throat, the salty, grimy and riotous crime novel that was one of Anthony Bourdain's early attempts at writing.

“Gone Bamboo”
Former soldier and CIA-trained assassin Henry is hired by mob capo Jimmy "Pazz" Calabrese to kill mob boss Charles "Charlie Wagons" Iannello, who last appeared in Bone in the Throat as the deux ex machina who saved the protagonist Tommy Pagano from retribution by more mob figures. The hit fails.

Now a federal witness for the US government in a trial against Calabrese, Charlie has gone into hiding in the same Caribbean backyard where Henry and his hard-nosed wife Frances are hiding at. Concerned over the possibility of tensions between Charlie and Henry causing trouble on the island, Charlie's minder, a former associate of Henry's, urges the hit man to spare Charlie and make amends with him.

To that end, Henry and Frances become pals with Tommy and his girlfriend Cheryl who we last saw in Bone in the Throat and are now eking a living in the same tropical paradise as owners of a restaurant.

Trouble comes in the form of Irish thug Kevin, hired by Calabrese's underlings to get rid of Charlie and anyone who stands in the way.

Like the previous book, Gone Bamboo draws heavily on Bourdain's experiences, but also weaves in a wistful scenario where he settles permanently in his Caribbean island getaway of St Martin. A local example of people like that is writer Tom McLaughlin.

The plot, meanwhile, isn't as tightly woven as the previous book. Yeah, Henry, make friends with Charlie, the guy who needs to shit in a bag (thanks to you), or you might make our job harder. Why couldn't they, say, pay these two to simply vanish for a while until things blow over?

Of all the quirks Bourdain could infuse his characters with: why make Calabrese a cross-dresser, other than to make him even more despicable? The vivid imagery doesn't help; halfway through chapter one, you'd want to do the characters a favour and blow him up with a dozen car bombs to kingdom come and gone.

I also got the feeling that Bourdain is somehow pitching the go-bamboo route to readers. The atmosphere certainly worked its magic on Kevin. Not long after his arrival, the Irishman goes native, sunbathing and skinny-dipping with his new girlfriend. But reality eventually intrudes, setting up some explosive encounters as hits are made and scores are settled.

It's no coincidence that Bourdain wrote this book in St Martin. He said before that he feels relaxed there; perhaps there is a connection. Bone: chef in the city, what Tony B used to be, and Bamboo: beach bum, a life he probably wanted even more, for his then-wife Nancy and himself. The scene where Frances tosses a half-eaten chicken leg to a stray dog echoes something similar in the epilogue to A Cook's Tour.

Despite the connection between the two, both Bone and Bamboo can be considered independent books. Bourdain has made the best of his experiences and weaves them into entertaining, albeit fast-paced and violent, novels.

For weary followers of his adventures since then, his crime novels feel dated compared to his works of non-fiction, which are arguably more real and interesting. After all, he doesn't need to dream any more. He's living it.

Gone Bamboo
Anthony Bourdain
Canongate (2000)
286 pages
ISBN: 978-0-85786-112-2


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