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The Sushi Chef

by Kyle Thomas Smith
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Oct 17, 2012
The Sushi Chef

Toshio must have some major mojo. Why else would Clute have spent five years in a sexless relationship, waiting for him to justify his love?

Yes, you read that last line correctly. It's New York City, 1992, and now with the dual release of her "Erotica" CD and pornographic coffee-table book, Madonna is doubling down on sex and ushering in a new era where new meds and holistic healing are helping more and more people live, thrive and survive with HIV. Yet, in David De Bacco's "The Sushi Chef," not every Madge fan has caught up with this bold new world.

Hailing from a small island off the western coast of Japan, Toshio works as a chef in a Midtown sushi restaurant. As a culinary artist, he approaches preparation and service with the utmost rigor and stagecraft, and this extends to how he manages his relationship with the novel's first-person narrator Clute, a thirty-year-old opera-singer-cum-writer, who is waiting tables until his screenplays sell.

Clute has had it rough lately. His workplace is going under and he is being evicted from his apartment. Even so, he might as well be a top-ranking tycoon for how much Toshio dotes on him, doing everything from preparing exotic dishes to drawing scented baths to hydrotherapizing, massaging, and wrapping Clute in lavish kimonos--everything, that is, but making love to him. All these years, Clute has gone around thinking it's because Toshio thinks he's a schlub, but when Clute comes to the point of saying and meaning that he's going to look elsewhere for love, Toshio breaks down and tells Clute that the only reason he hasn't slept with him is that he (Toshio) is HIV-positive.

"The Sushi Chef" would have been better served if De Bacco had followed another Japanese tradition, particularly salient in Ikebana, of removing nonessential details.

Far from rejecting Toshio, Clute rallies around him, taking him to get the most cutting-edge treatments available in the United States and assuring him that he will help him come out to his uber-traditional Japanese community. Yet, again and again, Toshio vacillates between stepping into his own power and succumbing to his anxiety demons and their attendant black dog. Now it's up to Clute to decide: will he continue to offer the love and support that Toshio keeps taking and leaving, or will he go where he is appreciated, all the while knowing Toshio is suffering?

In his debut novel, David De Bacco has placed his characters on quite a precipice, yet the story might have worked better as a novelette than as a novel. De Bacco is not one for economy or understatement. Instead, Clute as a narrator can scarcely walk down a staircase or city block without recounting for the reader each plodding step he took and every single repetitive quality of emotion that he experienced while taking it. Show-don't-tell issues abound ("I felt like I was still having too many unresolved battles inside my own head") and while Clute does make mention of people, places, animals and then-topical songs, he just as quickly reverts back to describing every redundant facet of his slough of despond and how earnestly he wishes to transcend it. It would be better to allow the context of the story to bear out these emotions and "The Sushi Chef" has enough compelling characters, settings and storylines to achieve its emotional potential sans verbiage. Moreover, De Bacco is capable of pulling this off as he is adept at writing in simple, elegant prose.

Additionally, interspersed throughout De Bacco's narrative are cooking segments where he introduces readers to the fine art of sushi preparation and service. Some of these sections function superbly as interludes, evoking the mystery and grandeur of Japanese culture, while others come off as pedantic and removed from the drama at hand. "The Sushi Chef" would have been better served if its author had followed another Japanese tradition, particularly salient in Ikebana, of removing nonessential details and letting the centerpiece breathe.

"The Sushi Chef"
David De Bacco
Kokoro Press
Release Date: October 22, 2012

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and two cats.


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