Review: Salt, fat, acid, humans: A tangy new entry in the cannibal lit canon
Any carnivore will tell you: Sometimes you enjoy a cut of meat more for its flavor than its tenderness. A rich bavette steak, a crisply fried pig’s ear, a long-simmered mutton roast.
“A Certain Hunger,” Chelsea G. Summers’ debut novel, requires some chewing, and that is mostly — as Martha Stewart would put it — a good thing. Meet Dorothy Daniels, now 50-something and incarcerated at Bedford Hills, the supposedly upscale women’s prison in Connecticut where Stewart also did time, albeit for a different crime. Dorothy has a lot to say and at times her tangents about truffle hunting, prison cuisine and acrobatic love-making threaten to distract from the juicy marrow of her confessions.
Dorothy will get to the circumstances of her arrest in good time, but she lets us know at once about her passion (food of all kinds), profession (restaurant critic) and obsession (cannibalism). This is hardly new in our literature; from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to Hannibal Lecter’s penchant for liver to the unforgettable scene in “The Road” and even the crazed parody of the French film “Delicatessen,” the notion of eating human flesh has simultaneously attracted and repelled bookish tastes for centuries.
It’s simple for Dorothy: If we eat animals, why not eat people? The first victim she tells us about, Casimir Bezrukov, was a hapless man she met in a bar. “Hotel bars smell like class privilege, desperation, and hope,” she says, before recounting in detail the history of her cocktail that evening, the Corpse Reviver No. 2. “I like to visit hotel bars, even when I’m in my own city. You sit at a bar and you’re gifted with that feeling of utopia peculiar to places frequented by wanderers.”
Before too long, she has lured Casimir to Fire Island, killed him midcoitus — the meat is more tender when the prey is relaxed — and gone not for his money but for his glutes, which she slices off and reserves for later in the novel.
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One thing Dorothy isn’t, at least in these pages: an unreliable narrator. She’s also awfully good at her job, something that becomes more and more frustrating for her as the media landscape begins to change. “‘Eat & Drink’ is going to be nothing but a collection of 2006 Barnard graduates jabbering about cupcakes, recession salmon recipes, Gordon Ramsay, and the Momofuku effect,” she grumbles, and readers who have experienced the same changes will practically taste the bitter herbs of regret.
Some of Dorothy’s memories are, at least, bittersweet. Her mother “made it all, and she made it well,” Dorothy recalls: bread, home-canned tomatoes, even her own butter. “My mother was a witch in the kitchen and a Demeter in the garden. We hated her for it.” What better way for a certified female psychopath (Dorothy glories in her unequivocal diagnosis) to metaphorically kill such a mother than to become a food critic who eviscerates other people’s creations?
The operative word is “eviscerates.” Dorothy’s passion for food is coupled with an ice-cold indifference to humanity, such that the move from roasting lamb to spreading toast with human pâté seems logical to her. “It was the cleanest human liver ever likely to cross my path,” she writes, in a throwaway line worthy of “Sweeney Todd.” “I could hardly waste it.”
This obviously ironic blitheness in fact calls back to Sondheim and Swift, who invoked cannibalism to drive home dark moral fables — though here it’s larded with an M.F.K. Fisher level of savory detail. Several chapters contrasting butchery techniques (Italian cattle versus Kosher rituals) in the context of dispatching a longtime lover conclude with a cold point. “There is no good way to turn animals into meat,” she says. “Death is rarely pretty.”
Sometimes Dorothy takes too long a walk to such hard-hitting truths. But there is more to her stories than cold disquisitions or horrific self-caricature.
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There’s gristle in her toothsome tale. Dorothy has had certain other hungers too. The reader has become a willing victim, following her along, but finally she thrusts a metaphorical shiv: She did find love, near-perfect love, and it scared her nearly to death. “I like being by myself, you see. I just didn’t want to be alone. And now I never will be,” she says; now she’s in prison for life.
Running through “A Certain Hunger” is a character first known as Joanne Doody, then as Tender deBris and finally as Emma Absinthe — a reclusive, world-famous visual artist who hasn’t left her Manhattan loft in decades. Once Dorothy’s roommate at Pennistone College, Emma remains her closest friend and confidante, holding space for Dorothy in her strangely aloof way. The two are thick as thieves, until one night that starts with prime beefsteak and ends in delicious Prosecco and limoncello cocktails. Dorothy fears that while in her cups she’s spilled the beans about her last caper.
Will Dorothy have to make a meal of Emma to save her own skin? That Summers makes this question both silly and grave testifies to her skill. Even when not writing about butchering or foodways or journalism (not for nothing are reporters known as “hacks”), Dorothy remains a Scheherazade of her own life, doling out tidbits like crumbs of Proust’s madeleine dunked not in a refreshing lime tisane but rather in hemlock.
“Writing sustains me,” she tells us. “I don’t know who I am if I don’t write. More importantly, you don’t know who I am either. If I don’t tell my story it’s as if I’ve died. I’m in prison for life, and I’m not going to die early.” A comic novel, a horror novel, a feminist novel and a moral novel of a kind, “A Certain Hunger” will sate yours — at least for entertainment.
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On the Shelf
A Certain Hunger
By Chelsea G. Summers
Unnamed Press: 240 pages, $26
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Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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