April 15th, 2009


Thin Blue Smoke

Thin Blue Smoke by Doug Worgul is published by Macmillan New Writing, which explains why copies are being given away to bloggers. After a gentle nudge from the author himself, I moved this up the TBR pile and got stuck in. He said, ‘I think you’ll like it.’ I did; in fact I was enchanted by it. This is partly due to the novelty factor for an English reader: who knew there were so many different types of barbecue? We in the UK know 0 about barbecue.

It’s billed as ‘a novel about music, food and love’; you could just as well say it’s about God, baseball and civil rights, only that wouldn’t sound so sexy. The book is set in and around La Verne Williams’ Genuine BBQ and City Grocery, popularly known as Smoke Meat, in Kansas City. The story switches between the present, the recent past and the 1960s and between characters, all of whom have some connection, however remote, with the restaurant. We meet La Verne, a former pro baseball player whose career was ended by injury almost before it had begun; his wife Angela, a librarian; AB, an apparent loser rescued to be their devoted manager; The Rev Ferguson Glen, Episcopalian minister and occasional drunk, plus assorted other regulars. So far, so much a tale of black and white folks getting along together just fine. The narrative jumps mean that the whole back story is not revealed until near the end. This is a fine way of creating tension, because there is a worm of evil running through, which causes the reader some unease. Towards the end of the book this reader was thinking, ‘Oh no, I hope it’s not X that something bad happens to...’

This is not just 'a good book' but a good book, that is, a book about good people and those trying to be good, and about redemption and grace. I was particularly taken with Rev Glen and his search for God and found his words full of wisdom. Don't think this makes for a solemn book; there's a lot of wry humour in it.

Reviewing a new book by a previously unknown American author is tricky for me because I don’t know what to compare it with. I’ve read popular American authors (Garrison Keillor, frex) and I’ve read Great American Literature. For all I know, there are dozens of books as good as this one being published in the US every week but somehow I doubt it.