Reading Women #7: Poppy Z. Brite’s The Value of X

The value of x “Foodie” fiction, my ass—everyone on this planet eats, even Roger Ebert, so why not write about consumption and appetite, and why reduce it to an insipid genre? If Proust can deify a madeleine, why not Poppy Z. Brite and the varied culinary cultures of New Orleans? So, Publishers Weekly condescends to her with an annoying blurb (“Fun foodie fiction… readers will scarf it down”), but no matter. Brite’s Liquor series is about New Orleans life in all its contours; food is the lens through which we view it. Here, Brite crafts the series’ origin story. So, here goes: In the beginning, there were two white boys in New Orleans. That in itself was a rare sight in the Lower Ninth Ward. The fact that John Rickey (“Rickey”) and Gary Stubbs (“G-Man”) had eyes only for each other made them even rarer. At every turn, Brite complicates her understanding of their blossoming love, and makes their relationship by turns endearing, erotic (damn near pornographic at times, and I’m proud of her for it), and enchanting. Once again, her plainspoken prose captures the resonances of good conversation, the sly and swift neighborhood detail, and the texture of lives forged by restaurant work. Rickey and G-Man basically grow up together, slinging hash in greasy kitchens and tourist traps, but Rickey—even at age seventeen—shows more ambition than his modest beginnings might allow. Through the efforts of their parents, who would prefer the boys spend less time together, Rickey ends up at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. The separation, told via correspondence and alternating chapters on the boys’ longing for each other, humanizes homosexual love, and makes the ache difficult to bear. The nuances of their relationship, especially as it’s being tested, forms the core of The Value of X; cooking life, while essential to their futures, is less essential to the densely populated present that Brite conveys. (Well, “present” in terms of the book’s intensity of feeling. In actuality, it’s set in the early 1990s.) Brite’s prose never feels less than urgent, less than the onrush of teenage hormones and drive, but she calmly steps back to allow glimpses of the older supporting characters—parents, mentor chefs, uncles and chefs, the panoply of folks who help shape and hone a young man (and woman’s) life. The novella is the coming-of-age tale not only of two gay boys, but of a genuine gay couple who, even at age eighteen and nineteen, begin to feel as lived in as a decades-old couple.

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The Value of X was originally published by Subterranean Press in 2003. The novella, along with D*U*C*K, has been reprinted in Second Line: Two Short Novels about Love & Cooking by Small Beer Press.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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