Crace's 'The Devil's Larder': Eat this and find redemption

On Books

October 28, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

The title page of The Devil's Larder by Jim Crace (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 165 pages, $20) contains, as if a subtitle, the following: " 'There are no bitter fruits in Heaven. Nor is there honey in the Devil's larder.' Visitations 7:11."

This suggests the book is about flavor, food. In one, direct sense, it is. There are 64 chapters, some of five or six pages, and one -- the last -- seven letters, only two words, long. Each piece has to do with eating -- or uneaten food. The little tales are narrated in a variety of implicit voices -- men, women and children from every walk of life. Most seem to occur in Mediterrean Europe, though places are never specified, only implied.

In a more central, if subtle, sense, however, food is simply Crace's device for exploring human truths, using vignettes that almost arbitrarily are so connected.

Jim Crace, in case you've missed him, is one of the most fluent and beguiling prestidigitators of the English language. He handles words and ideas with the grace of Michael Jordan soaring toward a basketball hoop. A British journalist for years, he turned to book writing in 1974, and has won, in Britain, the Whitbread (1986, for Continent), the E.M. Forster (1995, for Signals of Distress) and the American National Book Critics Circle Award (last year, for Being Dead).

The Devil's Larder is like no other book. This will put off a lot of people -- even some of Crace's fans. It should, to the contrary, delight a far greater number. From its outset, Crace has phantasmagoric fun with the devices of story and of language.

Some are funny little stories, rich with the personality of a character or a restaurant or a farm, a shop, a family, a situation. There is one about a club called The Whistling Chop -- so named because its tyrannical manager made waiters taking food from the kitchen to the dining room whistle without stopping or they would be fired. This outwitted their habit of eating food from plates they were delivering -- but, of course, the plot ultimately backfired on the manager.

Another is about an old lady who hastened her physical miseries by refusing to give up allergenic eggplant. One is about a waiter who "could sing out the names of all the ninety types of pastas, in alphabetical order, in less than three minutes, from angel hair to ziti." He got huge tips.

Some stories are loving, some cruel, some harsh and tainted by commerce, some intensely sexual, others deeply sensual but purely in the manner of the flavors and textures of things that are eaten.

There is a great deal of irony, but no raucousness. People betray bitterness and greed, pettiness and generosity. There are stories of saving lives and fear of death, pain and sex, innocence, selflessness and selfishness -- and love. It is a wide, wide spectrum of life -- stitched together by good eats.

The whole thing is playful, often almost fiendishly so. Jokes turn upon themselves and joke-makers are joked at. But it is also deeply respectful of traditions and continuity.

Several of the narrators are people who are very old -- a widow celebrating three meals a day alone as a sort of retribution against her demanding, dead husband. A grandmother instructs her child. There are family meal rituals, both as the glue of love and as tyrannies.

The chemistry of food that is involved is immensely sophisticated -- or very cleverly faked. It is characteristic of Crace's voice and manner to plant such doubts -- with lovably naughty insouciance. Time and again, these stories turn on themselves, and in doing so turn on the reader -- or anyway, turned on me.

At the outset of the Whistling Chop tale, for example, the larcenous waiters are appalling, and the manager a restaurant-goer's little hero. Through the magic of a few dozen words, a few paragraphs, the manager's a detestable petty tyrant, the waiters engaging. Again and again, Crace's art turned me into the pathetic victim of a charlatan. So duped, I found the stories all the more inescapable.

The Devil is present, though never explicitly, throughout this book. Or, rather, that is one very tempting way of seeing the work: A set of storytelling extravaganzas by the Devil himself, having a Hell of a time tempting, mocking and humiliating his readers. Anyway, this reader.

The voices in which a lot of the tales are told seem first very reliable, confiding, knowing and sort of innocently eager to help, to please. Then, time and again, that voice turns out to be a disguise -- perhaps the Devil in his celebrated capacity to appear in many forms. And, with the camouflage stripped away, he is mocking us, playing a ruthless game of tag with our consciousnesses.

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