introducing readers to writers since 1995

April 11, 2005

Ready for Prime Time

by Ron Hogan

Poppy Z. Brite on the frustrations that come when an author moves from a genre niche to more mainstream fare:

"It's a fine and awkward line I walk these days, trying to make clear that I did not 'get sick' of horror, that I'm not trying to deny or obscure my past as a writer of dark fiction, that it's a genre for which I still have the utmost respect and affection, and of which I am still very much a fan, while also trying to make people who haven't read the new stuff understand that I am not writing horror these days and am unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future (other than perhaps a short story here and there). I can't help feeling that my life would be just a little easier if the people whose business it is to be interested would pay just a little more attention..."

brite.gifPrime is the second of Brite's non-horror novels for Three Rivers Press, and the third novel about New Orleans chefs Rickey and G-Man. Last year, in Liquor, she wrote about how the pair, who have been lovers since they were teens, opened their first restaurant with the financial backing of a slightly disreputable celebrity chef. Prime picks up the story a little later, as the couple get blindsided by political intrigues and bad memories. The relationship between Rickey and G-Man is the clear focus of the series--though Brite's twin loves for New Orleans and fine food play only slightly less important roles--yet there's certainly enough shady goings-on in both books that even if "literary" book review editors decide they don't have the time, crime fiction review editors should definitely take an interest in what Brite's been doing here.

I spent much of the last week reading Prime on the subway into and out of Manhattan, and there's a lot I enjoyed about it, especially in the middle sections where Rickey is hired to turn around a faltering Dallas restaurant run by a former hotshot chef with whom he had a bad run-in years earlier. Parts of that re-encounter get a bit soapish, but it feels as if she nails the psychodynamics and power relationships of a restaurant kitchen; this is also true of the scenes set among the crew at Rickey and G-Man's place. In fact, I think the novel works best when Brite allows her characters to simply relax into their roles and be with each other (if that doesn't sound like too pretentious a way of putting it). There are moments where her own narration feels a bit too measured; given the depiction of New Orleans as a no-holds-barred zone of freewheeling corruption, I wondered at times if the book's voice couldn't similarly cut loose--free itself from the perspective of the detached observer to explain less and show more. I loved the parts where Brite talked less about how the characters were feeling and just let them act out what's on their minds. But that's arguably an individual quirk I possess as a reader--and in any event, it didn't undermine my continued interest in watching their situation unfold. And not just the shady stuff that drives the plot along; I mean the day-to-day situation of two people navigating a personal commitment to each other that encompasses every aspect of their lives.

Brite's expressed some concerns on her blog about how the reading tour for Prime has been going, and whether she even wants to go out again next year if the next book in the series, Soul Kitchen, hits its scheduled 2006 pub date. I wonder if part of the problem is that she's not being given enough opportunity to expand her new audience by hitting some new stops on the book tour itinerary. Let's just take one example: why aren't New York readers getting a chance to meet the author of a novel about a gay couple trying to run a successful restaurant, two subjects almost certain to strike a chord with a meaningfully sized audience here? Will we even get to read about her in one of our four major English-language dailies or three of our major English-language weekly papers? Last year saw a feature in Entertainment Weekly; where will she appear this year? (UPDATE: A few days after I wrote this, I found out Prime would receive high praise in the following weekend's NYTBR!)

Three Rivers showed a substantial amount of faith in Brite by buying two books that redefined her as an author, and then again by signing up the rights to her next two books. If they want that gamble to pay off, they can't simply rely on her talent or her old fan base--and even for a long-term investment, there's such a thing as moving too slowly. I for one am hoping this isn't the last you hear about Brite this month; we'll see what happens.

photo by J.K. Potter

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