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.

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Dog Days

It’s been quite a summer, so forgive the radio silence. In addition to moving to the San Francisco Bay Area (where housing costs as much as a moderate heroin addiction), I have also been talking to a lot of writers, working to pay the aforementioned rent, and reading through the incredible books that are nominees for The Kirkus Prize (for which I am one of the aforementioned judges for nonfiction). Add to all that writing reviews and features and trying to cross the El Camino Real without getting squashed like a bug, and it’s been a little busy. Now, where were we?

Less Than HeroJust before the move started to get serious, I finally got around to interviewing S.G. Browne, another San Francisco denizen who has been cracking me up since his first book, Breathers.

(“Was that the one about the dead kid who falls in love with a live girl? I love that movie.)

(No, Twilight, you’re thinking of the movie Warm Bodies, which was based on Isaac Marion’s book of the same name, and which is not nearly as funny as Breathers.)

Anyway, enjoy this interview at Kirkus Reviews with Scott about his new novel Less Than Hero, in which we talk about drugs, superheroes, Chuck Palahniuk, and the meaning of life.

The CartelJust as I was packing up to leave Colorado, Kirkus published my second interview with the inspiring Don Winslow. I’m a fan of Don’s lighter work, notably the surf novels The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman’s Hour but you have to admire his ambition in writing The Cartel, a massive magnum opus of a crime novel that follows up from his 2005 novel The Power of the Dog and connects four decades of drug-running, unimaginable violence and unnecessary bloodshed while simultaneously eviscerating the idea of a “war on drugs.” I like to think of this interview as a companion piece to my first interview with Winslow, when we talked about his novel Savages long before it was universally praised by critics and turned into an underrated film adaptation by director Oliver Stone.

There are plenty of other features over at Kirkus as well. Among this summer’s entries you’ll find:

  • I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Paul Offit, one of the world’s leading researchers on infectious diseases. I think Dr. Offit has a fascinating point of view and I think more people should listen to him, although he’s often demonized in the press and by idiot celebrities. “Watch what parents go through when they watch their child slowly die over a period of a few days because they chose not to give their child an influenza vaccine,” he said. “You become a passionate advocate.” (This is the part where anybody that doesn’t believe in vaccines or physics or gravity or whatever should just move on down the road).
  • I called London and published this interview with the preeminent British artist Bryan Catling about his otherworldly novel The Voorh.
  • A chat with journalist Mark Ribowsky about the shock and awe of Otis Redding in Dreams to Remember. “It’s like Hank Williams,” Ribowsky said. “These people endure because they were just so authentic. Music today is so phony and so superficial. It’s a bunch of people get together in a studio and they don’t know what they want to make. When Otis Redding came into a studio, he knew exactly what he wanted the song to sound like because it was all in his head. He knew how to make music come alive.”
  • I had a great talk with music journalist Fred Goodman about his new biography of Allen Klein, the guy who talked his way into managing both The Beatles and the Stones. His relationship with the Stones was so famously brittle that it led Keith Richards to dryly comment that knowing Allen Klein was “the price of an education.”
  • Science, yeah! It was my pleasure to interview Dr. Carl Safina, one of the world’s leading experts on Marine Ecology. His new book, Beyond Words, is about his journeys into the wild to see animals for their own nature, not as beasts that exist in the context of being around human beings.  There are lots of good ideas in that interview but my takeaway from the interview came down to just four words from the good doctor: “Their flood is us.”
  • Imagine Richard Nixon as the sole defender of our universe against unimaginable Lovecraftian horrors. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Now imagine you get to talk to Tricky Dick all day long and get him to explain just what the hell he was up to all that time. That’s what Austin Grossman did with his wild new novel Crooked and I got to grill him about the experience.

ArmadaFinally, I kind of buried the lede, but I finally got around to interviewing Ernest Cline, which was a real pleasure. I first met Ernie during an event at the Boulder Bookstore to publicize Ready Player One back in 2012. He was really nice then, gave me a business card, and readily agreed to do an interview. (Yes, I know I’m a geek. My copy of Ready Player One is signed by both Ernie Cline and Wil Wheaton, who narrated the audiobook of RPO and his new one, Armada. Get over it.) Of course, this was before Steven Spielberg famously signed on to adapt RPO for Warner Bros. and Ernie subsequently did an interview with anyone with access to electricity, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Most of Ernie’s commentary made it into the interview but it was fun to find out that he has more games and Easter eggs planned for Armada. The book has been out for a while now, so I think it’s fair for kids to find out that there is lots of cool stuff out there on the Interwebs related to the book. I’m not obsessive enough to go search for it all like Wade Watts, but it’s fun to run across things like:

So that’s all tons of fun. Upcoming I’ll also have an interview with Chuck Wendig, who famously tweeted that he wanted to write a Star Wars novel. One year to the day later, his novel Star Wars: Aftermath will be released on September 4th. That book is all hush-hush but I’ll have some good stuff about his new thriller Zeroes and his terrific little horror series that starts with Blackbirds.

delorean_back_to_the_future_wallpaper-other  In the meantime, I will see you all again in the future.