by Sharon Tucker
I can still hear Anthony Bourdain’s voice in my head. He’s walking a dusty road in the Australian Outback, tormented by flies, and making bad Mad Max jokes. He’s walking narrow, cold, wet streets in Tokyo looming over two interpreters as they go to meet and dine with a renowned chef. He’s exploring newly opened up Myanmar, reveling in the food but distracted by the ease with which his interviewees talk about being in prison. He was by turns skeptical and snarky about the world in general and “celebrity chefs” in particular, but he never hides his reverence for excellence, authenticity, and hard work.
Since my experience with Bourdain’s work has been with his travel TV and books, I was surprised to discover that his first published book was a crime novel, Bone in the Throat (1995), followed within two years by yet another, Gone Bamboo (1997). The Bobby Gold Stories were the last of that venture into the genre and didn’t come out until 2001. I should have expected the unexpected though with him and wow—what a delight it was to find these three gems. Happy, too, that there are graphic novels he wrote I have yet to experience.
The world of delectable, well-prepared food is a constant in what Bourdain writes, so it’s no surprise that his first book, Bone in the Throat, draws from his own past and is a slice of life from the restaurant world of New York. Organized crime has a foothold here both by blood and the tradition of extortion, so we learn what a trap some of the characters are in with little chance of escape. All the characters are in conflict, whether they’re mob affiliated, related to mobsters, bullied by mobsters, trying to put mobsters away, or treading water as a mobster. It’s a story of excesses, accidents, and inescapable, final consequences.
Consequences continue to reverberate in Gone Bamboo as we escape from New York to the Windward Islands in the Caribbean with a few familiar characters. We meet others, American and French, but New York intrudes, bringing back the same unresolved issues that drove our fleeing Americans to St. Martin’s in the first place. Into their relaxed, boozy lifestyle, intrudes some of the least palatable movers and shakers from the former novel and bullets fly again. What readers will enjoy particularly is the ease with which Bourdain’s morally corrupt, yet attractive characters balance their unique ethics with unsavory jobs that need to be done.
Such characters people The Bobby Gold Stories as well, especially Bobby himself, an ex-con and enforcer for a mobster he loathes. Bobby’s youthful errors cost him ten years in prison where he learned how to protect himself and is where he developed a dispassionate view of using his talents in ways he has to apologize for to his employer’s tardy debtors. The book is a collection of loosely connected vignettes, rather than a novel, but while I would have preferred his redesigning these stories into a coherent novel, I can appreciate the solid start in that direction these stories combine to form. Here, as in all he writes, we meet strong, adept women capable of anything.
I wish Tony Bourdain were still with us. The world is poorer without his wry, spot-on comments about civilization in general and his world in particular. He was always hungry to see more, to experience every variety of cultural reality, and always to be a part of the working world of food. I already miss his take on cultural phenomena. I do already, in fact, but as long as his voice is in my head, from time to time, I can just about know what he would have thought. It’s not enough, but it will have to do.
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