Writing eloquently about food is a good way of making people fall in love with your book: anyone made to drool over a novel is likely to think highly of it. But there’s more to Doug Worgul’s debut, Thin Blue Smoke, than mouth-watering, stomach-rumbling descriptions of succulent, sweet, sticky barbequed meat.
The axis around which the novel turns is LaVerne Williams’ Genuine BBQ and City Grocery, better known as ‘Smoke Meat’, after the ungrammatical but deliberately uncorrected words painted on the restaurant’s front window. The proprietor of Smoke Meat, LaVerne Williams himself, is a proud and superficially cantankerous man with firm views on what makes good barbeque. A.B., the restaurant’s well-meaning but none-too-bright manager has worked for LaVerne since he was a teenager; LaVerne, his wife and Smoke Meat’s customers are A.B.’s whole world, the nearest thing he has to family.
Reverend Ferguson Glen is an Episcopalian priest who has lost sense of himself but takes comfort in the social and gastronomical titbits Smoke Meat provides. As Ferguson and other colourful regulars drop in for a taste of LaVerne’s famous – and strictly Texas-style – Kansas City barbeque, their tales are told and a community of character is established, with Smoke Meat at its heart.
Although Thin Blue Smoke spans three generations, covers historical events as major as the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and sees numerous births, marriages and deaths at breakneck pace; somehow nothing really happens. The mood, or emotional context, supersedes matters of plot. Incidents and characters drift in and out of view as if lost in the smoke of the novel’s title. The central characters’ backstories are told so beguilingly that when the action shifts back to its centre – Smoke Meat in the present day – it is as if the narrative never moved in the first place.
There are times when Worgul is too ambitious, forcing the reader to turn back and reread parts to remember the connections between people or particular forgotten episodes. Sammy is a case in point: his story, which runs parallel to A.B.’s, is crucial to the overarching narrative, but it is told at such long intervals that it loses its urgency in places.
Mostly, however, Worgul’s tactic is successful: he presents a broad spectrum of human experience to consider issues such as faith, failure, forgiveness, love and friendship along with the responsibility they carry. By flitting between one character and the next, between past and present, the novel draws subtle parallels between the experiences of the protagonists without ever becoming heavy-handed in its message.
Worgul was born into a family of preachers, and his childhood values show in the emphasis he places on the redeeming power of love. The beautiful and affecting eulogy Ferguson Glen gives at A.B.’s mother’s funeral is written with such sensitivity that even the most confirmedly atheist reader may be momentarily drawn to the consolation Christianity offers. But Worgul is not positing Christian faith as the answer to life’s ills and there are plenty of moments when the Church is criticised. Whilst the Christian message of love and forgiveness offers enormous comfort to some characters, it cannot penetrate the moral or emotional gloom of a few – leaving the reader to ponder the sadness of their lives.
Thin Blue Smoke is brimming with wonderful, complex and humorous characters - some we only glimpse as their stories intersect with those of the main protagonists. Ferguson is one of its most engrossing, so full is he of missed opportunities, unfulfilled ambition and despite all this, love and hope. He wrote one Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel in his youth but fear of failure and an uncanny knack for self-destructive behaviour meant he never wrote a second. Worgul may or not be nominated for a Pulitzer for Thin Blue Smoke (he certainly deserves it), but he admits to the same second-novel anxiety he attributes to Ferguson. The men’s backgrounds are also similar, each of them growing up in families of preachers. Perhaps it is the underlying self-analysis that makes Ferguson stand out above the other marvellous characters in the novel.
Rarely does a book satisfy the head, heart and the stomach. But as more-ish as the food it describes and as lingering as smoke itself, this novel will reward anyone who reads it.
Jo Caird is a freelance writer. You can contact her here: firstname.lastname@example.org