Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review: "Thin Blue Smoke" by Doug Worgul

Warning: If you’re a fan of barbecue, do not read Doug Worgul’s Thin Blue Smoke on an empty stomach! You will feel intense cravings that may only be satisfied by a trip to your local barbecue establishment. Perhaps twice, depending upon how long it takes you to read the book.

Hunger pangs aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Worgul’s book. It’s utterly charming, occasionally moving, humorous meditation on life’s ups and downs, surviving the challenges thrown at us, the redemptive power of love and friendship, and how sometimes life just doesn’t go the way you planned. While the book takes place in Kansas City, it honestly felt as if it were one of those wonderful little books about a small town, where nearly everyone is connected in some way.

LaVerne Williams had a brief stint as a major league ballplayer when he was younger, and the end of his baseball career still haunts him more than he’ll admit. He and his wife own a small but popular barbecue joint in Kansas City, and sometimes it succeeds despite LaVerne himself. But beneath his cantankerous exterior lies a vulnerable core, a man devoted to preparing barbecue his way, and a heart laid bare more than once.

A.B. Clayton has been working at the restaurant for as long as he can remember, and given the challenges with his own upbringing, views LaVerne and Angela as surrogate parents as well as bosses. He is a shy, sensitive man, whose world revolves around the restaurant and his few friends, but he knows there is more out there.

Ferguson Glen is an Episcopal priest who was the star of the literary world when he was younger, but he was never able to live up to his early potential. Always unsure of his place in the spiritual world, his drinking problem is his biggest challenge, and it may keep him from realizing what he truly loves.

The lives of LaVerne, A.B., Ferguson, and a number of others unfold in Thin Blue Smoke. A novel in vignettes, the chapters move back and forth in time and are narrated by different characters, but as each chapter unfolds it provides more insight into what makes them tick. This is a beautifully written book about life, love, music, friendship, and, of course, food, and it really grabbed hold of my heart.

At times it’s difficult to keep time and place straight, and there are a lot of characters to remember. And Worgul introduces one plot element toward the end that I thought was unnecessary, but luckily it disappears fairly quickly after making its mark. But in the end, this is a book with so much heart, and so many vividly drawn characters, that in addition to desiring barbecue, you want to spend more time with them.

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