Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thin Blue Smoke by Doug Worgul

It is said that we should never judge a book by its cover but I’ve discovered many a wonderful read by just that method. (Pigtopia and Mothernight are two volumes whose visuals made me swoon with delight before even setting eyes on the blurb.)

And so it was with Thin Blue Smoke, Doug Worgul's debut novel, published with Macmillan New Writing. It’s true that the book’s editor, Will Atkins, was there talking about how evangelical he feels about this book but there were five other gorgeous books present, and Thin Blue Smoke was the one I noticed and admired. ‘How’ Will Atkins said, ‘do you illustrate a book about BBQ without offending people?’ Just like this: I love the visual shorthand of the (poor) cow and the smoky font of the title.

LaVerne Williams is the owner of Kansas City’s best BBQ joint: LaVerne Williams’ Genuine BBQ and City Grocery. It’s known to the locals as ‘Smoke Meat’, because that’s what’s painted two feet high on the front wall. LaVerne has firm ideas about barbecue (for heaven’s sake, don’t call it ‘barbeque’ ‘because that’s a sissy-ass way to spell’ it) and he isn’t afraid to expound his philosophies. Smoke Meat doesn’t serve fries, onion rings, coleslaw, potato salad or any kind of chicken; but it does serve beans. Not Kansas City beans because they’re too sweet and rich. Smoke Meat serves Texas beans ‘just the way LaVerne’s grandmother made them.’ He snarls and he snaps at folk, but he’s a good man – don’t go on about it though, LaVerne can’t be doing with people going on about things.

Thin Blue Smoke is as an epic redemption tale of LaVerne and his friend and customer, Ferguson Glen. LaVerne, a tall, skinny black man, is an ex baseball player (he was invalided out) and a reformed felon. He’s married to Angela and their only son, Raymond, died at nineteen. Ferguson Glen is tall, white man; an alcoholic, Episcopal priest who has never pastored a parish. At 24 he wrote a Pulitzer Prize nominated novel. His one and only marriage failed the day before their honeymoon finished.

The diner, Smoke Meat is the pivot of the novel; the narrative revolves around the tendrils of lives and relationships of the employees and customers. It’s a novel about community; about friendships that transcend, race, religion and gender. It considers blood ties and how they can mean everything or nothing. It’s about chances in life and overcoming the lack of them and about making mistakes again and again but still being given another chance. It’s about faith – in the widest possible sense. It looks like the randomness of friendships but what most of the characters share, and interwoven throughout, are a desire to do the right thing, and a passion for music and food.

More important to the story than what happens is how it happens.

There is so much more I want to tell you about this novel because I don’t think I’ve come close to doing it justice. I want to tell you about more of the characters, about AB Clayton, and why I loved him. I want to tell you about Delbert Douglass Merisier III and his friend Harholz, both of whom lost their wives in tragic circumstances; and Bob Dunleavy and his son Warren, who has a delusional disorder and speaks in Lapine, the language of rabbits. I want to say that despite the foreignness of the book, summed up by Smoke Meat’s unfamiliar menu: Vinegar Pie (a dessert!), Pulled Pork, Pulled Chuck and Burnt Ends, I was among friends and I felt absolutely bereft when I had to leave them behind.

Thin Blue Smoke is tragic, funny and real. My only negative comment is that if debut novels are always this good, is it worth persevering with my own?

Doug Worgul’s website is here: There are interviews here and here.

UPDATE: You can hear Will Atkins, Doug Worgul's editor at Macmillan New Writing, talking to Sue Cook and guests on Write Lines on BBC Radio Oxford until Sat/Sun.

11 comments:

Queenie said...

Sounds like my kind of book, JJ; thanks. (BTW I don't think your links are working for Doug W's website and interviews.)

JJ Beattie said...

It was fab Queenie. Thanks for tipping me off about the links...

Angie said...

Great review, JJ. It sounds like an excellent read; I'll have to watch for it!

JJ Beattie said...

Angie, I thought it wouldn't be my kind of thing but the characters... I cared so much for them. I should go back and work out how he did that. My MC is a bit cold and needs warming up!

Karen said...

Sounds wonderful, I must add it to my pile :o)

Doug Worgul said...

JJ,

Drop me a line. I'd be happy to talk about character development.

doug worgul

JJ Beattie said...

Karen, it was. Let me know how you get on if you read it.

Doug, that's very kind of you. Thank you.

ChrisH said...

I don't think I would have picked up but your enthusiasm is such that I'll look out for it now, thanks!

Debs said...

Blimey, it sounds brilliant, which is a pain as I don't think my walls can stand any more books leaning against them.

Will Atkins said...

So pleased you shared my enthusiasm!

JJ Beattie said...

Chris, excellent. Job done, then. The characterisation is beautiful...

Debs, *grins* Nor mine. I need to order some new bookshelves.

Will, thanks very much for giving me the book, and yes, I loved it.