In my very first novel, there’s a scene in which the pool player Robert Yoder and the bartender Charles Collignon are trying to decide whether they can partner to build a pool hall in Saginaw, Michigan. Robert has come to visit Charles in New Orleans, and Charles is taking Robert for an evening in town to teach him about hospitality. Here, he’s walked Robert through something as simple and as invisible as table-setting:
Under Charles’ tutelage, Robert worked his way through the entirety of the table: salt and pepper, napkin and tablecloth, flower arrangement, candle, the orientation and placement of plates as they arrived. Along the way, they had their Julep and Sazerac, along with a Vieux Carre and a Ramos Gin Fizz, Charles instructing Robert on the fine points of mix and presentation for each.
After dinner, Robert said, “You know, I just look at a table and see a table. But now I’m seeing decisions, hundreds of decisions.”
Charles nodded, sipping water. “And one goal of all of those decisions is to be unnoticed, to simply be at hand. You don’t notice that the handle of the bread knife is to the right, but since most of us are right handed, we reach for the knife and come to the handle. We hold the bread in our left hand when we butter it, so the bread plate is above the left service. You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.” He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. “I knew that I didn’t want to be a chef like my father—kitchen work is hot and sweaty, people yell at one another constantly, always under pressure to move faster. The front of the house is what always interested me, the management of people’s happiness.”
My books are “about” a hundred different things. They’re “about” playing pool and darts and table tennis, “about” university life and failed careers, “about” corn farming and urban policy and industrial decline, “about” adoption and the social forces that normalize children. But those are all culinary decisions, choices about cuisine and menu-building. There’s an entire paired but unspoken body of choices about the experience of dining, about how—regardless of cuisine—we can build a pleasing, immersive, unified experience.
And that’s what a good restaurant, or a good book, really is. It’s the unification of the culinary interests of the chef and her staff with the hospitality interests of the dining floor team.
Let’s look at one specific decision that I made in that excerpt above, a decision that I understand right now reading it again in a way that I understood natively nine years ago but never could have named. And the decision I want to call your attention to is the sentence He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. Let’s think about that sentence the way we’d think about the placement of the bread plate: what exactly is it doing?
The most obvious thing that it’s doing is breaking up Charles’ long soliloquy into two parts. My characters tend to be well-educated people, and here, Charles clearly has Robert’s permission to be the teacher—that’s why they’re at that table. So it’s no surprise that Charles is able to deliver, in that moment, an unbroken 152-word statement, something that would take a minute or a minute-fifteen of real-time to say. It’s not a simple conversation, which would have lots of interruptions and mutuality. It’s a lesson.
But let’s look at the placement of that breaking sentence within the soliloquy. All of the statement before represents the conclusion to Charles’ analysis of the objective world before them: the tableware, the glasses, the sequence and presentation of courses. The statement after the breaking sentence is subjective: it’s about Charles’ own history within the world of fine dining, and his decision to attend to the front of the house rather than the kitchen. Without you ever knowing it, I’ve divided that one unified piece of discourse into two related but not identical topics, and signaled the mutual importance of each.
It’s doing a second thing, too: it’s reminding us that we’re at a table in a restaurant. Lots of beginner writers recognize the importance of breaking long dialogue into chunks, but they don’t quite realize that it’s a positive tool rather than merely a defensive act. So they’ll drop in a sentence like, “She sighed heavily” or “He fidgeted in his chair” as a sort of typographic device that breaks a long statement. But those kinds of stage directions don’t accomplish much; they reinforce (or sometimes act in the absence) of the emotional life that ought to be carried in the dialogue itself. We oughtn’t to hear her sigh, we ought to feel her weariness in every sentence she says. We oughtn’t to see him fidget this one time, we ought to see him perpetually as a nervous man in constant motion.
So when Charles signs for the bill to be applied to his tab, it’s an action specific to this location—the end of a meal in a fine restaurant—but it also does a third thing. It hearkens back to the fact that the maitre d’ and Charles greeted one another by name at his arrival, back to the fact that Charles knows exactly how they make a Vieux Carre and a Sazerac here. Charles has chosen this restaurant for his lesson because he knows it intimately, he’s a regular enough patron that they’re happy to have him run a tab. This is the kind of restaurant at which he feels the power of hospitality himself, and has returned to it dozens or hundreds of times—of course it’s where he’ll take Robert for his lessons. This simple sentence highlights the familial love Charles holds for this place.
You never saw any of that, did you? But in the context of reading, I think you’d have felt it. “You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.”
For the past couple of months, I’ve been stuck about what my next novel might be. There’s lots of reasons for that. My wife and I both just recovered from Covid. I’ve been completely immersed in the work of a client college. I’ve just taught three months of short-story writing, and coached two friends into the editing of their own books. And there’s just the native emotional trough that comes with the completion of each book, a natural period of exhaustion and adjustment that must be endured before the next can begin.
But I find myself now eager to perform hospitality again. And rather than fret about starting from culinary choices, I’m ready to embrace my work as front-of-the-house manager, welcoming you again to a rich and engaging evening. Maybe it’ll be Thai food, maybe Kansas City barbecue. Doesn’t matter. I’m ready to be your host.