The Mystic Pig

How many books are there out there that bring you to a screeching halt? That make you stop and say ‘wow’ out loud when you read them?

The Mystic Pig by Richard Katrovas

One of — and I’m not kidding — the best books I’ve ever read. And no one’s ever heard of it.

Where to start.

How many books are there out there that bring you to a screeching halt? That make you stop and say ‘wow’ out loud when you read them?

The Mystic Pig by Richard Katrovas

One of — and I’m not kidding — the best books I’ve ever read. And no one’s ever heard of it.

You know this book is getting ignored when you look at the reviews on that page, above, and see only three users have reviewed it. Three. And one of those is mine. Tiny publisher, well-respected but largely unknown poet, first novel. I’m lucky someone mentioned a pre-release review to me or I’d not have bought it. A review I didn’t read but only was told about.

And I didn’t have any expectations. The descriptions on Amazon are vague. I expected a murder mystery, something like Tony Bourdain‘s novels, which are fun but not that good (though I love Bourdain to death, god how I’d like to party with that man, cook with that man, have dinner with that man, he’s one of my few real culinary heros).

But Mystic Pig isn’t a murder mystery. Not even close.

What is it?

Well, first, that name is weird and almost put me off the book. It’s nonsensical and makes it sound like a kid’s book with talking animals. I’d have tried to talk Katrovas out of that title if I were his agent, his publisher, his editor. And maybe they did. The title refers to an epic poem being written by a character in the book, in one of two major plot threads.

I’m not going to write a complete review. This is a paean, a recommendation, a plea that you go read this book. It’s not a review because I’m no longer un-biased enough to do that.

But a summary, with no plot spoilers.

The book is set in New Orleans; it’s got the sultry and vaguely decrepit, decadent feel that this city has in real life. A vague funkiness, an earthiness. The city has a ‘done too much, eaten too much, drunk too much‘ feel, an ‘all fucked out, but maybe one more‘ feeling. That’s the real New Orleans. Not the over-written quality of an Anne Rice novel or the too-seedy, too-sleazy character it has in James Lee Burke’s novels. This is a simpler New Orleans, one that ordinary people live and work in.

The protagonist, Nathan Moore (Nat), is a man sliding into what could be prosaically called a mid-life crisis. But that phrase is dismissive, in the sense that, for real, thinking, feeling people, it’s not always as simple, as tidy as just that. This isn’t “I need a new car”, “I need to act young”. This is “my life is at a cross-roads”.

Two families, an ex-wife turned lesbian, two sets of children. A job he’s committed his life to, which is the process of crashing and burning. A birth-mother he’s just tracked down and made contact with. A secret life, the details of which are vague and sometimes confusing, contradictory.

Nat’s life is his work in in restaurants; as waiter, cook, bus boy, and now as manager. And it’s clear Katrovas lived this, he’s not just a foodie, he’s also an insider. A friend who read it, who spent years in the restaurant business, was sucked in by the opening scenes, the realness of the working restaurant environment. Food is Nat’s life, his passion. Katrovas writes about cooking with an almost pornographic intensity. He also writes about the oddity of the people surrounding the business, from a kitchen worker with a gift for phallic ventriliquism to the shady organized-crime types who are always around the edges of the restaurant business. Eccentric characters, but real in a painful and funny way.

The second plot line is told from the point of view of a young African-american boy named Willie, who’s something like twelve. The boy is a fantastic character, street-tough on the outside but clearly smart, more educated, more sensitive than he’ll let on. In some ways it almost seems that the boy is in some way an alter-ego for Katrovas, clearly a tough-guy if you look at his picture, a man’s man. A big, burley southerner, a boxer and athlete, yet a poet.

Willie, we gradually learn, is working as the assistant and gofer for a mad poet, a sick, crazed man who’s drinking vodka by the jug and working on an epic poem which we gradually learn is the titular ‘Mystic Pig’. We never hear the poem; we hear only Willie’s internal reactions to it, his confusion and conflict. The poet sees Willie as the embodiment of his muse.

These stories intersect only late in the book, but where they connect is, in effect, the climax of the book. Though there’s no great action scene, no chase, no mighty resolution. What there is, is a change in both lives, a hinge-point in effect. Both lives change from there, in one of those moments you never see when it happens, but may know later as a crucial point in your life.

Not very much actually happens in this book. Much of it is about the characters lives hitting this point of transition. Nat’s feelings of dread, fear, angst, his pain. Willie’s growth and maturation, his recognition of his own feelings. Both of them dealing with mortality and pain.

So why is this book so good?

Well, simply put, it’s incredibly well written. The prose is simple, clean, masculine. Not in the exaggerated way Bukowski or Fante are masculine, but there are vague similarities, particularly to Fante. Maybe Ray Carver is a better writer to compare to though. There’s something to prose written by poets that I love, as if they manage to pour all the word-play, all the flourishes, all the cleverness into poetry, and what’s left is simple, clean, the essential core of good prose. Katrovas is this kind of writer. The narrative matches the characters, so there’s a distinctly different feel to the prose in sections with Willie’s PoV (Point of View) than the sections with Nat’s PoV.

Then there’s something that impressed me personally; an email dialog between Nat and his birth mother, a tough, scholarly feminist, an academic. The dialog is more true to real-life email dialog than anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve done this for most of my adult life, intense, personal email dialog. Katrovas captures this; the two characters feeling each other out, presenting a face, adjusting. It’s part dialog, part fencing match, part confessional. It’s brilliantly real. Brilliantly. This is subtle; people who have not spent hours in communications just like this might never see it. But those of us who’ve done it, it strikes home with an almost audible impact.

There are three books that I can recall ever shedding tears over. One is Lord of the Rings, and it gets me every time. The movie got me there also. The scene at the Gray Havens, the last line (Well, I’m back). That’s one. The second is a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, Lord of Emperors; the ending had such beauty.

This book is the third. I’m unable to say why; there’s something to raw, so wrenching about the emotions these characters are feeling, so true. I was left with tears running down my face.

Please. Go read this book. Buy it. Get it from the library. Put in on your Amazon wish list so I can buy it for you (Ok, wait, not everyone at once now!)

Mr. Katrovas, is you happen to run across this, thank you, and please, god, please, write another novel. You must.

When I picture writing that novel I’ve so long meant to write, it’s work like this that inspires me. Books like this that make me say ‘that’s it, that’s how I want to do it‘. Writing that sounds like it’s so easy to do, but in fact, it’s not. That’s what I want to do some day. If I could be half, a quarter as good, that would be enough. That would be more than enough.

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