Novelist Brite moves away
from dark fantasy genre
THE VALUE OF X
By Poppy Z. Brite
Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, $35, 183 pages, hardcover.
January 26, 2003
By Franklin Harris
Perhaps the hardest task for any author known for writing in a particular genre is escaping that genre to write in another. Some longtime fans can be especially unforgiving, behaving as if the author has personally affronted them. Meanwhile, readers who may have been reluctant to sample the writer's previous works may stay away, expecting, often mistakenly, more of whatever kept them away in the first place.
This is usually the reader's loss almost as much as it is the author's, who, naturally, has his livelihood at stake. Which is why so many genre writers remain within the safe confines of their ghetto throughout their careers.
Given all that, I admire Poppy Z. Brite for her courage in leaving the ghetto, although it was a fine ghetto to be sure.
"The Value of X," Brite's latest novel and her first in almost seven years, is doubly courageous. Not only is it a departure from the dark fantasy and, for lack of a better term, horror fiction of her past; it is a departure in style as well.
Gone are the serial killers and vengeful spirits of her previous works. "The Value of X" is that most everyday of tales: a coming-of-age story.
Gary and Rickey are best friends. They've known each other since childhood and grew up in New Orleans' seedy (but not in a touristy sort of way) Lower Ninth Ward.
Rickey has a love of cooking — a handy preoccupation in a town known for its cuisine — as does Gary, although to a lesser degree. They daydream of opening a restaurant and hone their skills, as best they can, in run-down diners like the bluntly named Feed-U, where the owner, Sal, holds court with his dirty apron and ubiquitous cigar.
And they are slowly realizing that they are gay and in love with each other.
Being a gay teenager in 1980s New Orleans is an easy way to get beaten up, never mind what your parents might think, and you know exactly what they might think. So, Gary and Rickey struggle to explore their relationship while keeping it a secret.
Of course, some secrets cannot be kept, and the boys' parents eventually catch on and conspire to separate the two.
Their solution is elegant. They can separate Rickey and Gary by helping Rickey fulfill his dream of becoming a chef and sending him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After all, how can Rickey refuse, and how can Gary object?
In her earlier works, Brite brings poetry to gruesome subjects. Her most beautifully written novel, "Exquisite Corpse," has Jeffery Dahmer-like killers as its protagonists.
With "The Value of X," Brite strips down and simplifies her prose. It loses some intricacy, but it gains urgency. It is almost as impatient as Gary and Rickey are to turn 18 and move in together away from their families. But it seems so effortless that you might think Brite has written this way her entire career.
Brite tells Gary and Rickey's story with amazing sensitivity, avoiding easy opportunities to launch into polemics. We sympathize with them as they deal with the constraints of family and religion, and we sympathize with their parents, who are clearly wrongheaded, but nevertheless mostly well intentioned.
"The Value of X" is a mature work by a writer justly confident of her abilities.
The hardcover limited edition of "The Value of X," signed by the author, is available from Subterranean Press, www.subterraneanpress.com.