Danler’s tight, crisp, poetic prose lends special flavor to this darkly erotic thriller of a woman living on the edge. With its precise images of New York’s restaurant world, the food and the workers who party into the night, wasting away on booze and dope and cocaine, the novel ultimately strikes a rich balance between literary eroticism and a sort of gritty street realism. Tess, the novel’s narrator, is an attractive twenty-something who has just arrived in New York to make a new life for herself.
With the City in the grips of a tyrannical heat wave, Tess makes an effort to feel “planted,” renting a spare bedroom in Williamsburg for seven hundred a month then attempting to find work as a waitress or a barista while fantasizing about living a “twenty-five hour life.” She eventually lands an interview with Howard, the manager of one of Manhattan’s most popular and salubrious restaurants. Hired to the position of back-waiter, Tess
is thrown in at the deep end, working frantically with crème of waiters and chefs and servers, each one perfectly poised and idiosyncratic.
From her days folding the restaurant’s linens and the bar mops to her nights snorting coke with her new workmates, Tess feels marked and noticed--not just by her coworkers who sometimes scorn her, but also by New York itself. She’s attracted to Jake, the restaurant’s sexy barman, but she also finds herself drawn to Simone, the head server and wine connoisseur who maintains her power by “centrifugal force”, often moving through the restaurant as if “pulled by a tailwind.”
Tess takes chances. She also lives in her own private world and spends an incredible amount of time pondering the nature of her circumstances, which leaves her vulnerable to her surroundings and to the reality around her. Tess is not at all street savvy, yet her near-sightedness allows her to disengage from the potentially seductive big-city world in which she now lives. As Tess grows in confidence, becoming aware of the ballet “the unrehearsed choreography always learned mid-performance,” she begins to see something expert and sadistic in Jake. Seduced by the glamorous worlds of wine and fine food, Tessa fears that her desires are catching up with her. She finds herself caught in a psycho-sexual power struggle with Simone while continuing to run “flagrantly power-drunk” though the streets with Jake.
From her addled confession in the bathroom of the Park Bar (the club at which the workers hang out after work), Tess seems blithely unaware that her life is being whittled away by time, cocaine and beer. Facing the inevitable consequences of her actions, Tess
plunges into mournful love-sickness, hurt and grieving: “I had chosen this overgrown murky path where I couldn’t see five feet in front of me: the drugs, the drinking until black, the embarrassment, the confusion. A black aura of heartbreak.” Jake--and at first Simone--are supportive and trustworthy, but Tess can’t break through their childhood connection even when Jake proceeds to seduce her. Simone takes Tess under her wing, taunting her with exclusive wine tastings and cheese courses, the aura of “promised meaning.” But Tess can only think of how being close to Simone is a way for her to always be in the proximity of Jake.
Danler embeds her novel with appeal of ambiguity as Tess’s attraction to Jake leads her into nothing but icy trouble. The sometimes threatening quality of sex is mirrored by a similar appreciation of the menacing possibilities of human contact. I loved Danler’s prose even when I was lukewarm for her hipster characters, all of them mostly needy, some of them venal, and none of them entirely reliable. More convincing are Danler’s observations of the nonverbal cues men and women give each other and the way some people communicate when more is imputed than is ever said.
Tess passively allows an affair with the charismatic barman to begin, a man who seems to possess a shady, sometimes volatile temperament. As a dramatic foil, Jake is just as opaque as Simone, yet the portrait left of both of them often seems incomplete. There’s some gorgeous writing in Sweetbitter, combined and astute observations of New York’s inner-city life, but like Manhattan’s chilly winters, the characters mostly left me feeling a bit empty, dark, and cold.