1 loaf of wry2 cups of longing3 cups of detailed observation2 flank steaks of convictionDash of critique of carnivorous colonialismStir the wry, longing, and observation in a large mixing bowl. Pour atop flanks and cook for 364 pages. Garnish with critique. Beautifully serves one. Such a literary recipe takes the utmost care, patience, and preparation. Many first-time novel chefs manage to overcook, but Cynthia Ozeki is the rare cook she creates a sumptuous 12-chapter meal in her debut My Year of Meats.
Jane Little-Takagi reluctantly takes a job with My American Wife!, a TV show that brings the values and meats of the American heartland into the homes of Japanese wives. Jane considers herself a "cultural pimp" for hawking beef for a national lobby association, but as a sometimes brash, sometimes tender fledgling documentarian, she wants the experience and she needs the money. Across the Pacific Akiko Ueno watches My American Wife! and dutifully makes the dishes for her husband John, one of the producers of the show. But Akiko's inability to conceive causes John shame, which he takes out by beating his quiet wife. However, the strength of Jane's programs, which invariably veer from what the producers are looking for (one of her shows features vegetarian lesbians), gives Akiko hope to remove herself from an increasingly hellish existence. From the Wal-Martification of America to the hormone-fueled production of meats, Ozeki balances humor with horror, sardonic cultural comment with passionate evocations of the political, personal, and chemical politics of childbearing.
Conceptually the novel falters a bit in the last few chapters, but not enough to derail the surprisingly funny and surprisingly disturbing picture of cross-cultural clashes and the high stakes of meat production in the United States. Ozeki masterfully brings her skills as an accomplished documentarian, which provides unbelievable details, especially to the American sections of the book. She nails regional quirks in behavior and speech from the delta soul of Mississippi to the funkified East Village. Smart, sensitive, slick, and sizzling, My Year of Meats (Viking, $23.95. 0670879045), possesses an edgy hipness informed by maturing convictions, and Ozeki's recipe simmers equal parts attitude and talent. As they say down South, "Them's good eats." Reviewed by Mark Luce.