Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Basking in "Thin Blue Smoke"

I have been on a manic reading phase lately. Some have been good, some have been “eh”, but only one was powerful enough to inspire an unsolicited impromptu book review.

Thin Blue Smoke, by Doug Worgul, breathes new life into the Midwest. The story is mostly set in Kansas City, and revolves around music, food, and love. And by food, I mean barbecue. I could almost smell the meat and the woodsy smoke as I read it. As a native St. Louisan, there are numerous parallels between my fair city and KC; we too revel in the blues and barbecue. Few would argue that St. Louis has better baseball. I think even La Verne, Mr. Worgul’s main character, would agree on that point…

Before I ordered the book off of Pan Macmillan’s website, I first read the prologue and first chapter on Mr. Worgul’s site. I was intrigued. When I finally got the book in my hands, I was blown away. If I could have a wish, it would be to write something this authentic.

Yes, authentic. That is the best word that I can find to describe Thin Blue Smoke. Mr. Worgul has created a masterpiece of characterization, and the character list is not brief. But by the end of this novel you know each of them personally; their flaws, their wit, their heartbreaks, and their charming (and not so charming) idiosyncrasies. The personalities mesh into a perfect balance, despite obvious contrasts and socially presumed stereotypes. You will find yourself emotionally involved with them as if they were real. That alone would make this novel masterful…but there is so much more.

It’s an authentic portrayal of tragedy, fathers and sons, the love of a good woman, the love/hate relationship with good whiskey, redemption, and how God does (and doesn’t) speak to His children. I do not know the author personally, but I get the sense that he is a writer who is a Christian, but not a “Christian writer”—so to speak. God is delicately woven throughout the novel, but not in the pushy, predictable, saccharine way which is so prevalent in mainstream Christian fiction. I applaud Mr. Worgul for writing characters with honest dialogue, instead of sanitizing it to conform to a standard that often creates a disingenuous final product. Some of the language is raw, but not what I would consider profane…it is sparse, necessary and inoffensive.

I loved the quick jabs of humor laced in the pages, and was especially thankful for the ones that popped up unexpectedly, right in the middle of heavy, emotional passages. At one point, I had tears pouring down, but found myself laughing aloud before the tears left my face. That is how real life goes.

There was a particular paragraph in Thin Blue Smoke that made me pause in reflection, and I succumbed to reading it over and over again, chewing on its profound depth:

Bob Dunleavy is not ashamed of his son’s mental illness. Not anymore. But the spitefulness of it; the specific way it inhabits his son’s life; the way it shoves his son’s shoulders together and possesses his face and animates his voice beyond proportion; the way it shits on the floor of his son’s once tidy mind; these he carries with him always, like stones in his pockets. They bruise and chafe when he walks. They are heavy and awkward, and because they are there, little else fits in his pockets. They knock together and he hears them and he is never not reminded of them.

They are made heavier by the fact that nobody knows they are there.

Man alive…that’s good writing.

This novel was not just several hundred pages to pass the time. It was an emotional, spiritual, hilarious experience, and the soundtrack is still playing in my head.

Take it for a ride. You, too, will savor Thin Blue Smoke.