Once you stop looking for a plot in “Thin Blue Smoke” (MacMillan New Writing, $23.95) and let yourself enjoy the cool ride, you'll find elegant yet fun-to-read writing and believable characters. How often do you read about fictional characters that you'd like to know in real life?
LaVerne Williams, A.B. Clayton and Ferguson Glen inhabit Smoke Meat, Kansas City's best purveyor of barbecue.
But don't let proprietor LaVerne catch you using the words purveyor or proprietor — he'd tell you he just makes good KC barbecue, Texas-style.
Yes, there's a difference. It's that difference that defines Smoke Meat — the fact that he doesn't sell fries or baked beans, and that he does sell Vinegar Pie.
LaVerne sums it up: “Barbecue is not fancy food. It's plain and it's simple. And that's how it should be served — plain and simple. If you're selling barbecue you serve it up in a barbecue joint. If you're selling fancy food, then it's fine to serve it in a fancy place. The only thing fancy about this place is the damn rent.”
Different is also what makes “Thin Blue Smoke” a great read. It sneaks up on you, again, while you're waiting for the romance or the crime novel to begin. It never does, but by page 99 (one of many great chapters), you catch yourself smiling and suddenly realize that you're simply having a good time.
That's all author Doug Worgul wanted, I suspect.
Worgul puts his two loves, barbecue and Kansas City, into the smoker and yields a tender, fall-off-the-bone chronicle of American life.
Sure, there are vestiges of that above looked-for plot: a down-home Kansas City blues community, unrequited love, pimps and hookers, a man on the fringes of life.
But Worgul's talent is building characters and dialogue that trips off the tongue and spills onto the page.
Take Williams — ex-baseball player, ex-felon, master of the barbecue “smoke.” Or Glen — Episcopal priest and writer who loves and hates God and whiskey. And Clayton — the white boy who really wanted to be his best friend, a talented black basketball phenom.
As much as Williams and Clayton are the featured characters because they work in the shop and propel the storylines, it's Glen who steals the book. An alcoholic and fading literary star with daddy issues, he sabotages a promising marriage, stunts his writing career and nearly loses love the second time around.
But while Williams' up-and-down life has peaked into a happy maturity, and young Clayton's is blossoming but will only go so far, Glen still can get back what he lost years ago: his writing, an understanding of his father and a long-lost interracial love. He and Periwinkle Brown have the best names in the book, after all.
Full disclosure: I worked with Worgul, a writer and editor at The Kansas City Star (the newspaper is briefly mentioned in an early chapter). All that serves as a firsthand confirmation of Worgul's writing talent. It's not wasted in “Thin Blue Smoke.”
— Yvette Walker