I am, however difficult it is to admit, guilty of succumbing in part to the terrible “journalistic valley of death” – the times when reading and writing feel as though they’ve become chores. It’s inevitable when you build your life around the craft. I found myself in that valley when I somewhat impulsively agreed to review Doug Worgul’s novel, Thin Blue Smoke, recently released in the U.S. by our FFW friends, Burnside Writers Collective. And it’s work like his that often gradually carries us out of the valley and reminds us why we do what we do in the first place.
Thin Blue Smoke centers on LaVerne Williams, a retired professional baseball player who sets up a barbecue pit in Kansas City. LaVerne isn’t really the main character, however – there isn’t one of those. LaVerne is the hub in a wheel, and Worgul is telling the story of the whole wheel, with everyone in the book as a spoke. The non-chronological narrative style can be confusing at first but soon proves to be consistent and indispensible. As Worgul jumps back and forth in relating pieces of the characters’ stories, building up to a bigger picture, the pace at which pieces are filled in is fascinating, often heart-wrenching, and always endearing.
Part of Thin Blue Smoke’s deep charm is its familiarity. I, like Reverend Ferguson Glen, am a Michigan native overflowing with a tide of existential angst that can, on occasion, be stymied by a generous serving of slow-smoked ribs (unlike Glen, however, I most certainly prefer my ribs wet). I remember what it was like to grow up with a grandmother who, like LaVerne, displayed an inordinate amount of Texan pride. Worgul writes complex and quirky characters and, with enough mixing and matching, every reader will find someone within its pages to identify with.
The novel is not a page-turner – it cannot be read in an afternoon, simply because it isn’t designed to be. Like the barbecue that pervades each story and brings the characters together, this novel is meant to be absorbed slowly and savored. It is a collection of episodes that chronicle very broken people dealing with the very inevitable heartaches of very normal lives. Worgul’s examinations of themes like race, faith, love, loss, death, and the finer points of running a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, are never forced. Each story and the discussions that result are provided for by the day-to-day events of real life, with dialogue spoken by simple people who are slowly discovering, at their own pace, that they will never have all the answers.
“God and whiskey brought LaVerne Williams and Ferguson Glen together,” Worgul explains at the beginning of Chapter 19. “And for a long time were their primary common denominators. Ferguson loves and hates both God and whiskey more deeply, but LaVerne has a better understanding of how each works.” This, really, is what Thin Blue Smoke is about: people who need one another, and who share their understandings of how things work while the silent, patient, ever-moving I Am slowly fills in the gaps. The results are funny, tearful, thought-provoking, and, like a big mound of pulled chuck with a side of greens, deeply satisfying.
...And yeah, with this book read, I'm getting in the car and going to Famous Dave's now.
Lyle Enright is on staff at Relief and writes SF and horror poetry and fiction.