Poppy Z. Brite’s Liquor trilogy sprawls, even though it primarily concerns a single couple (John Rickey and Gary “G-Man” Stubbs) and their New Orleans restaurant. A fine-dining restaurant provides a perfect lens through which to view a city’s culture, in that—like a hospital—it’s a place where a variety of classes, races, and gender can converge naturally. The wealthy, white, politically influential regulars mingle with tourists from all over (and from all stations in life) and the middle classes who came there as a treat. The waitstaff includes men and women, mostly white, mostly attractive, mostly from the middle class or under. As Brite points out more than once, no matter how white and rich your clientele is or your waitstaff appears, however, your food is likely being cooked by low-wage, non-union, public-school graduates—and they aren’t often white.
Brite’s fictional restaurant almost demands that she takes on New Orleans society— Uptown vs. Lower Ninth Ward, movers and shakers vs. lifers and deadbeats, out-of-towners vs. natives—as a whole. In the novels, the main narratives often dovetail into cultural commentary, food critiques, digressions about characters, sly parodies of notable Louisiana figures, and bits of New Orleans lore that are there, well, just because they need to be. Liquor, Prime, and Soul Kitchen are portraits of Brite’s beloved and beleaguered city, through the lens of a restaurant and its owners.
In D*U*C*K, Brite finally gets around to crafting a Liquor close-up instead of a panorama. The novella begins with Rickey—Liquor’s principal chef, co-owner, and general hard-ass—and ends with him. Though Brite’s prose meanderings are present, D*U*C*K is a character study, showing how one character came to define himself through cuisine. Here, Rickey negotiates a banquet for 300 Ducks Unlimited members in Opelousas. Though it’s only three hours, Opelousas is a world away to Rickey. It’s a southern Louisiana enclave that’s more home to Cajuns than to New Orleans’s Creole fixtures, and it’s hicksville as far as Rickey is concerned.
Rickey agrees to do the banquet, against his better judgment and G-Man’s gentle admonitions, because the guest of honor is former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert. Hebert’s a hero to the city but especially to Rickey, who discovered his life’s calling at the one Saints game he attended—a rare win—while watching Hebert work his magic on the field. D*U*C*K cuts back and forth from Rickey’s youth in the 1980s and early 1990s, to and from multiple points-of-view and different narrative voices (sometimes only for a paragraph at a time), but Brite’s steely gaze mirrors Rickey’s intuitive but clear-eyed view of his kitchen, or Hebert’s full understanding of every moving part on the turf.
The novella moves briskly, covering an autumn in New Orleans’s life in less than a hundred pages. Rickey’s rages—and G-Man’s calm—gets full attention but, unlike the stereotypical swearing and domineering chef, the focus is on Rickey’s desire to change:
The thing was—and Rickey hadn’t even figured this out completely in his own mind, let alone spoken of it to G-Man—that he was sick of being the kind of person who thrived on rages and vendettas. It was the cliché of the temperamental chef, the fat tyrant screaming in the kitchen. He wasn’t much of a screamer, but plenty of his employees were scared of him and all were cautious around him. That part he liked; you couldn’t run a restaurant right if your employees weren’t a little scared of getting reamed out by you. It was the effect on the rest of his life that he didn’t like so much. Last year, during a bout of back trouble, he’d had his first physical in years and learned that his blood pressure was high. Not dangerously high, but high for a guy thirty-two years old who got a lot of physical activity. He didn’t put much faith in doctors and only thought of it at odd moments, but he wondered if it was something he should be worried about.
Brite’s prose captures Rickey’s voice effortlessly—when not zeroing in on him, D*U*C*K isn’t quite so colloquial—and how he might write about his world, if he were inclined to write (which he is not). Also, she gets how quickly a person’s thoughts can move from the immediate to moments in the past. This happens throughout the novella—with flashbacks, free-associative meanderings that suddenly turn to a direct point, with characters reminiscing through dialogue. To use an awful pun, D*U*C*K flies.
Rickey, though, changes only in slow degrees, if at all. The novella opens with him being attacked by a waiter he’s fired, and suffering a concussion; Rickey’s stubborn enough to return to work that night, and there’s no indication by the novella’s end that he wouldn’t do the same if something else like that occurred. He still intimidates his employees, once they’re in Opelousas, but Brite shows why that’s necessary. Rickey’s worst traits become necessary evils or, even more complexly, inextricable from his genius.
If D*U*C*K emphasizes nothing else, it’s that Rickey—prototypical New Orleans high-end chef—is a genius, and that gourmet cuisine is a fine art, and that mastering fine art requires a degree of insanity. Brite’s prose is not mad. Indeed, D*U*C*K is as cool and collected, and dryly funny, as Rickey’s partner G-Man. Nevertheless, it tracks the life and art of a genius for a season, and shows him trying to eliminate the adjective (“mad”) that often accompanies such a title.
D*U*C*K was originally published by Subterranean Press in 2007. The novella, along with The Value of X, has been reprinted in Second Line: Two Short Novels about Love & Cooking by Small Beer Press.