The Criminal Mind of Anthony Bourdain

BourdainBelieve or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.

Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.

The One-Two Punch

Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”

Gone BambooThe author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.

The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary

Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.

Typhoid MaryThe first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.

Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.

I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.

A gift. Cook to cook.

Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.

Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.

Continue reading

Four in the Morning, the End of December

It’s raining in San Francisco.

It’s kind of amazing because I was starting to feel like I had escaped weather entirely by moving to the Peninsula. After a very wet spring in Colorado, the weather here hadn’t deviated more than five degrees for months until the monsoon started a few days ago.

(See, I broke one of the cardinal rules of writing there. Never start with the weather).

Anyway, I just popped in to archive a few stories and refresh the blog before another new year begins. This one has been crazy enough.

IMG_3549Just to finish up the project, in mid-October I flew down to Austin to award the Kirkus Prize in Literature for nonfiction, along with my comrades-in-arms, Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum and prolific essayist Meghan Daum. It was a closer race than you might imagine but in the closing minutes, the prize went to Ta-Nahisi Coates for his emotional and brilliant book, Between the World and Me. In some ways, it was a strange year to be a judge for the Kirkus Prize because of the wealth of nominees. But despite the diversity in this year’s starred books, there was still a clear winner, as evidenced by Coates winning the National Book Award just a month later. Can I pick ’em or what? You can read about all of the other winners here.

Working my way through the Kirkus Prize and applying the skills to pay the bills has been pretty much all-consuming through the fall, but here are a few stories that have been published in the meantime.

  • ZeroesI interviewed one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, about his new novel, NOT STAR WARS. I’ve always liked Chuck’s writing advice that he inflicts on his audience at his blog, Terrible Minds, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his new sci-fi novel Zer0es. Check out his violent and horrible series that starts with Blackbirds as well. I was sad to hear that the adaptation of his Miriam Black novels over at Starz is now kaput but he did offer the perfect writer’s reaction to the news: “Hey, I got paid at least.” It didn’t hurt that when I interviewed him it was a month away from his publishing the first in-canon Star Wars novel since the original trilogy ended, Star Wars: Aftermath. Chuck has since fielded some, er, “interesting” reviews for the bare minimum diversity he chose to include in the book, and his reaction is dead on: ” If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars. It’s like trying to picture Jesus kicking lepers in the throat instead of curing them. Stop being the Empire. Join the Rebel Alliance. We have love and inclusion and great music and cute droids.”
  • StrangersAnother title that has kind of flown under the radar is Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating and terrifying debut, Strangers Drowning. Just after I moved to California, I caught up with the New Yorker journalist to talk about her portraits of extreme altruism. What I loved most about this book is that the author doesn’t bring any kind of moral agenda to her work. “If readers are moved to do more themselves, that’s terrific, but as much as I want to show that these people are admirable, I also want to show that what they have chosen to do is very difficult and they are very tough to be able to deal with it,” she told me. “I didn’t want to cover that up or simplify their difficulties.”
  • SamI think I’ve ended the year with my interview with music journalist Peter Guralnick about his comprehensive biography of Sam Phillips. Long before I decided to do this for a living, I remember listening to Peter’s Elvis biographies as audiobooks when I was working for a library. Sam was also still kicking around Memphis when I was a kid, so it was interesting to take this deep dive into the guy who pretty much made Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. There are more stories to tell at some point, like the bizarre job interviews I’ve had here in the start-up culture, but I think they’ll wait for another day. See you on the other side.