Excerpt from Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Before You Know Kindness

By Chris Bohjalian

Before You Know Kindness
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2004,
    448 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2005,
    448 pages.

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The audience laughed with him, appalled, and he shook his head now, suggesting that in hindsight he couldn't believe what he had done. And, the truth was, he couldn't. He remembered those evenings well, especially the nights when there would be those sightseeing tours. As soon as the bus would coast into the dirt-and-gravel parking lot, he would retrieve the wooden coop with the torpid crustaceans from the walk-in refrigerator so that the creatures were right there beside him on the floor. Then, like an automaton, he would bend over and grab one from the container that reeked of low tide and pin the writhing, asphyxiating decapod (five pairs of appendages on the thorax, a word he'd found in the entry on lobsters in the dusty encyclopedia from the Coolidge administration he'd discovered in a spare bedroom in Catherine's mother's house) on its back. He would uncoil the springy ribbon of tail and hold down the bulbous crusher claw with his fingers for the split second it took him to line up the cleaver on the lobster's carapace (an unbuttoned sports jacket, he thought at the time) so that the animal's abdomen was exposed. Then he would press the metal blade straight down as it breathed.

But not, alas, breathed its last.

The point was to get the creature into the 450-degree oven while it was still alive.

And—whether he was cooking five or six lobsters on a given night or five or six dozen—after he had sliced the animal lengthwise down to the exoskeleton, he would pack the open cavity with rouxlike gobs of Ritz cracker crumbs and margarine, sprinkle paprika on the stuffing, and slide him off the cutting board and onto a baking sheet. Rarely did the animal have an aluminum leaf to itself, usually it would be one of three or four lobsters pressed together, the claws of one beside the tail of another, Y to Y to Y. Then he would deposit the creatures into the oven on whichever rack was not at that moment occupied by swirls of sole (wrapped around ice-cream-scoop dollops of the same Ritz cracker crumb and margarine paste), slabs of bluefish, or chicken breasts buried beneath bubbling puddles of tomato sauce.

"The animal would cook for ten to twelve minutes. I presumed it finished dying within the very first, but that probably wasn't the case," he said, his voice softening both for effect and because he knew this was true and it disturbed him.

First it's the whales, then it's the dolphins. Next it will be the tuna. It'll never stop, you know, until someone's protecting the bloody lobsters! The words of a whaler—an otherwise charismatic old bird with a furrowed, hard-bitten face—spoken to Spencer the year before last at a gathering of the International Whaling Commission he'd attended in Japan. He remembered their discussion now, as he did often when he talked about lobsters. Well, yes, he'd told the whaler. That's exactly the point.

In addition to being Lobster Boy—Spencer's title was actually second chef, but the grown men who were waiters all called him Lobster Boy—he also prepared the sole and the bluefish and the chicken Parmesan at the restaurant. The first chef, a burly guy who'd cooked on an aircraft carrier before enrolling in culinary school when he was done with the navy, worked behind a grill the length of a shuffleboard court in the dining room itself, searing the steaks and the chops before any customers who wanted to watch.

When Spencer would return to his girlfriend's mother's house, he knew he was sweaty from his hours beside the hot ovens and from his exertions—he moved quickly and he always pressed the cleaver down hard, convinced even then that it hurt the animal less if the evisceration was fast—but he knew he smelled mostly of fish. Consequently, in late June and July and early August, when the nights were still warm, he kept a bathing suit in the car and sometimes he would detour to Echo Lake before going home. There he would dive into the water and swim along the surface until he felt free of the smell of dead lobsters and sole, and the skin on his fingers no longer had an oily film from the bluefish.

Excerpted from Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian Bestselling author of Midwives Copyright© 2004 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission of Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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