Book Review: Bone in the Throat
Three things attracted me to this book.
First, the author. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated American Chef. I have watched a few episodes of his controversial show ‘No Reservations’. He was a master chef, a rebel, a preserver of culinary art, and a specific aversion towards peer master chefs and the demigods of the culinary art and show industry. A person of diverse talents, he learned Ju-jitsu at a late age. He was a heavy smoker with a sharp, raspy tongue often filled with innuendos, profanities, and sexual expletives.
Second, the title. The title is a masterstroke. Simply criminal. To what extent the content would back the title, I did not know.
Third, the cover. An ensemble of empty jars indicates the masterful combination of crime and cuisine, with the missing ingredients.
I started reading with an open mind.
Cover, Title, and Plot:
The cover illustration is thoughtful. The empty ingredients of the culinary jars indicate the impact of the mafia and crime on the Manhattan culinary scene. The crossover and co-existence when chefs become inadvertent participants and witnesses to mob crime are brilliantly represented in the cover. The size and the font highlight the author’s celebrity status versus the title. This is not a standard cover design.
The title sucks us in. ‘Bone in the throat’ is a title that follows the cover — throat indicates the passage of food, the basic route for all things culinary, and the presence of bone in the throat indicates the presence of crime and mafia in the Manhattan culinary scene.
Bourdain uses his trademark, raucous, profanity-laced writing style. If you have seen his videos, it is easy to conclude that he has stuck to his communication style. The story is simple.
A restaurant in the middle of Manhattan’s Little Italy is owned by a failed dentist Harvey, who is at the mercy of a mobster Sally Wig. His nephew Tommy Pagano, who has a love-hate relationship with Sally, wants to lead a crime-free life as a sous chef. He has an exemplary friendship with Michael, the chef who is Paris educated, but suffers from drug addiction. Sally is affiliated with a mob controlled by Charlie, who runs a chain of command through Danny and Skinny, two henchmen.
The story starts like a kitchen-and-restaurant procedural but quickly turns out into a cloak-and-dagger drama between Tommy, Sally, and Al. Al is part of the Enforcement Division of the South side division of the FBI and has a nose for likely crimes. He smells something fishy when his eyes fall on Tommy and Sally.
An innocuous request from Sally to Tommy to keep the restaurant open during the wee hours results in the tryst with murder — a drunk mobster Freddy is brought in by Sally and Skinny and shot; and Tommy becomes the unwitting witness and crime scene cleaner. Tommy suffers from the trauma of this incident.
Michael- the chef, Harvey-the owner, Tommy- the sous chef, all are questioned by Al — the cop, with Tommy as the primary suspect in the missing case of Freddy. It turns out that Tommy confesses to Michael, who in turn tells Al.
Sally confronts Harvey over the weekly payments owed to him. To escape from Sally’s wrath, Harvey leans on another lender — a couple of men in Briano suits from the Queens. Sally comes to know of this and tortures Harvey. An unsavory character, Victor, is placed as the overseer of Sally’s interests. Uncomfortable with Victor, Harvey dials Al. Meanwhile, Sally and Skinny then blast the Briano suits out to their gory deaths.
Suspecting Harvey’s involvement, Sally and Skinny kill Harvey. The Count, a fishy character convenes a meeting where Sally, Skinny, and Victor are present, and in the long meeting, he announces that Tommy will be the new chef. Meanwhile, Michael — the Chef, and Victor get into a scuffle. Tommy intervenes and injures Victor.
Based on the advice from their lawyer Brendon, Skinny is under instructions from Charlie, the mob boss, and Danny to finish Sally, as he is now the prime suspect in the eyes of the FBI. Skinny and Victor finish off Sally. But the FBI catches them red-handed with the gun in the duffle bag.
The restaurant is shut down, as it is now a crime scene. Tommy and Michael lose their jobs. Charlie, the mob boss advises Tommy to get out of town so that the other mobsters don’t cast their eyes on Tommy.
“Sally farted in his sleep, they could hear.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Bone in the Throat
This represents the sample of the book — the FBI eavesdropping on their suspect Sally Wig.
The MasterChef inside the author vividly paints the scenes in the kitchen and restaurant. The cleaning, slicing, and cooking process, the instruments, and utensils, the ingredients, the cutlery — everything is narrated in its finest detail. The reader’s taste buds and belly are tickled and the stomach gurgles its famished enthusiasm, and the reader is already looking to grab something from the refrigerator or make something quick while turning the pages of this novel.
The language is expletive-laden and lucid and easy to read. The prologue of the book sets up an eerie start, but I failed to connect anything in the story that made sense to the prologue. I might have missed something, so I re-read the climax, but could not still figure out the connection. The title fell off after the prologue.
If you are a reader with culinary interests, this book is a fictional treatise on cuisine. For the non-culinary experts, this is a light read.
~Ashok Subramanian © 2023