A friend gave me the book Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler (Vintage Books, 2016) to read. She hated it, despite its multiple rave reviews, and wanted to know if I hated it too. She works around restaurants, so perhaps the descriptions of self-destructive, back-biting chaos struck an unwelcome chord in her.
In some ways, I disliked the book as much as she did, and in other ways I will disappoint her by saying that it is original, well written, and noteworthy.
The summation of the book’s message is near the end, when the protagonist says “Eventually nothing would be important and I would throw it all away.” The book is a landmark of a nihilistic, hedonistic, negative age. It might be a woman’s version of the Beatniks or Andy Warhol. I would like it if a woman’s work defined an age, but I’m not enamored of, or even connected to, the age presented.
It is written as a memoir, advertised as a novel, so I suppose it is not Danler’s personal story, though it is written with the intimacy of personal experience. I appreciate the high degree of difficulty such a voice represents.
Danler has a flair for description. “He worked the floor in a pink tie, weaving around like cursive.” “We went outside. The air tasted of steel knives and filtered water.” “A dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows.” She misses the mark on a couple of metaphors, such as “Her bra was neon yellow like a sign saying Proceed with Caution.” When a reader is enjoying the deft descriptions, a clunker like this stands out.
This protagonist Tess, through whose eyes we see this world, had a rough childhood, which has afflicted her with a victim’s sense of entitlement. She pictures herself in an Edward Hopper painting and enjoys Emily Dickinson poems, hinting at an advanced education, nevertheless she arrives ignorant beyond measure in New York.
She lucks into a job in a very fancy restaurant, and begins to learn the basics about wine, food presentation, oysters, and whatnot. Why would a restaurant probably nursing a star or two want to hire a person who knew nothing about food, wine, or restaurants? Her prior experience was in a burger joint. The book suggests that beneath Tess’s studiously ignorant persona the person who hired her saw a little something that, compared to the other applicants, set her apart.
This rude ignoramus has disdain for almost everybody. Her roommate is a “moron,” the people in her neighborhood are “dead-eyed slouchers.” She considers herself superior to the restaurant guests who absorb her most rancid derision. “They were the hungry sort of guests who had spotted me from across the room and were beckoning me with their anxiety. … I have your fucking food, you’re not going to fucking starve to death, it is a restaurant for fuck’s sake.” When she spills butter in a guest’s lap and the guest wails, Tess blames the guest — “Who wears silk while they eat?”
I was around a lot of hippies when I was a young woman, and identified with them on many things – their music, their sexual freedom, their fierce demand for equality of all persons, their appreciation of the Beatles’ daring and Pete Seeger’s determination.
Sexual license is a theme. When my Greenwich Village roommate in 1963 had sex with her boyfriend in front of me, I protested, and she said, “I don’t see what you are so upset about. Adele and I did this all the time.” But I had, and have, a rule that you can’t fuck in front of me without my permission. After Tess’s noisy, aggressive orgasms in the back of a taxi, which are so disruptive that the driver closes the window between them, she gives, “There were people who did whatever the fuck they wanted and their city was terrifying, barbaric, and breathless,” as a reason for her behavior. Having lived and worked in New York City for thirty of my seventy-five years, I have been impressed by the patience, tolerance, good humor, and work ethic of the place, given the stresses from overcrowding and hyper-competition that we all faced every day. The people of Houston are patting themselves on the back for helping each other in the face of a hurricane, but New Yorkers helped each other plenty during 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy. People everywhere appear “terrifying, barbaric, and breathless” to me sometimes, not only in New York. But Tess is special. It’s gotta be ten times as threatening just for her.
Tess belongs to the “whatever” generation, which holds little in common with hippies, though their habits are somewhat similar. Tess and her friends snort and smoke and drink whatever is put in front of them until they are smashed, pie-eyed, under the table, on the floor, in the hospital. It’s just what people do. They escape into the filthy bathroom to share lines of cocaine and follow it up with alcohol, Zanax, Aderol or whatever it’s called….whatever. Tess’s crew don’t take care of themselves, but they haul themselves to the restaurant every day to do their job, driven by the rants of the chef and the snarky cruelty of their superiors on the floor. Their superiors enjoy the bodies of the underlings at will. This is just the way it is. This is sort of like what the hippies did, but we thrived on hope, while these folks thrive on despair.
Tess, who has to sell her car for $675 to pay all her overdue parking tickets, who is drunk and high every night, who does not know an oyster from a clam, who is devoid of any interests outside the restaurant, who wants someone else to “confirm that I was alive,” who “somehow” pulls the 1995 vintage instead of the 2002 and blames it on everyone else, who gets annoyed when the chef and her manager slip into French, who lies down and rolls over in New York saying, “It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave,” – this young lady is put out that she is not instantly promoted over the other shlubs who do the same work she is doing. She presents herself as constantly under attack. Sitting on the river at sunrise, she notices the rats, not the sunrise.
I can’t give a demerit to the book because its philosophy is not mine, but can object to the arc of the book. Its purpose seems to be the ultimate praise of a rube who comes to the big city and makes good – an essentially hopeful message. This bear, though, has to go over too many mountains before it comes to the final one. The reader is awash in pessimism until the very, very end, which made hard reading for me. Way too far into the book, she starts showing some grit. She stands up to people, objects to her boyfriend’s duplicity by almost killing herself with drugs, seduces the manager of the restaurant as part of her demand to be promoted, talks back, learns the wines, develops her palate, and in the happy ending, is rewarded by the woman who has deceived her most deeply. Oh boy! Ain’t life grand!
What we have here is a failure to communicate. I, the happy, hopeful, hippy cannot connect to this disjointed, disaffected, nihilist. Her goals trickle only so faintly outside of herself. Ms. Danler didn’t grow up in the 1960s, as I did. Lacking such intrusions as the draft, she finds no reason to even consider politics or the society as a whole. Her music is heavy, punk, metal. She has no grounds to expect the house with the picket fence, or a healthy family life. Given no future, she fucks what comes along, smokes what is around, stays up all night, manages her health with uppers and downers, nearly kills herself, and considers it good, or should we say, adequate.
Stephanie Danler may have hit upon the perfect parable for modern times. I don’t blame young people for being bitter today, beginning with their college loans, which are mentioned in the book. When I went to college there was no such thing. There was no global warming, no cynical Iraq war, no dunce in the White House. (I thought some of them were dunces at the time, but Trump takes the cake.) I hope that Danler will write another book. Maybe her next one will have some hope. I personally find it impossible, to live without hope.