Conundrum Press, 460 pages, 2015, paperback (hardcover and Kindle also available), novel, no pictures
This is the first novel we have included in our book reviews, and it belongs. A darn good read, Thin Blue Smoke: A Novel About Music, Food, And Love by Doug Worgul is well worth your attention. And not just because it has barbecue at its core.
I read a lot of fiction—at least one novel a month. In the past year, I have undertaken a personal project to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels from the past 50 years. At this point, I have read quite a few of those, so I know good lit when I see it. Thin Blue Smoke comes to life with some fascinating characters whose stories intersect with those of the main character, LaVerne Williams, a former major league baseball player who has an attitude, a rap sheet, and a Kansas City barbecue joint called “Smoke Meat.” The writer, Doug Worgul, has a day job as marketing director for one of the nation’s best barbecue joints, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que in KC, so this storyteller knows the turf. In Worgul’s hands, the travails of a small-time black restaurateur in the barbecue capital of the world ring true. Of course, Worgul’s tale also weaves in music, whiskey, religion, profanity, love, lies, and laughter.
The writing is good and crisp:
God and whiskey brought LaVerne Williams and Ferguson Glen together, and for a long time were their primary common denominators. Ferguson loves and hates both God and whiskey more deeply, but LaVerne has a better understanding of how each works.
The words on barbecue are superb:
Smoke Meat is at least as well known in the neighborhood for the food it does not serve as for the food it serves. This is a source of mild irritation for LaVerne in that he would rather his restaurant be known for its fine smoked meats. But his strongly held and quite specific opinions regarding the kinds of food – especially side dishes – that ought and ought not be served in a barbecue joint have positioned his menu somewhat outside the mainstream of Kansas City barbecue tradition. LaVerne understands this and steadfastly refuses to do anything about it.
This intransigence has been a source of irritation for LaVerne’s right hand man, A.B. Clayton.
When groups of workers in nearby office buildings discuss where to go for lunch, and someone suggests Smoke Meat, someone else will inevitably ask ‘Is that the place that doesn’t serve fries?’
Smoke Meats does not serve fries. Neither does it serve onion rings, potato salad, or any kind of chicken – reliable standbys at almost all other Kansas City barbecue joints.
Smoke Meat does serve beans, but not barbecue beans the way most people think of them, which is navy beans baked in brown sugar and barbecue sauce, with bits of brisket thrown in. For that reason, LaVerne doesn’t call his beans ‘barbecue beans.’ He calls them ‘beans’. The recipe is straightforward: pinto beans cooked with chopped onions and jalapeno peppers, enormous amounts of garlic, way too much salt, and a pinch of cumin. Just the way LaVerne’s grandmother made them down in Plum Grove, Texas. But not the way most customers expect when they order beans. When A.B. or one of the other employees puts a bowl of beans on a patron’s tray it’s not unusual for the customer to say, ‘Excuse me, I ordered the beans.’ At which point, the employee is obligated to explain, ‘These are the beans. They’re Texas beans.’ This is what annoys A.B.
‘Why don’t we just give people what they want, boss?’ A.B. has pleaded on numerous occasions.
‘Because they only want it because they’re used to it,’ LaVerne says. ‘Kansas City beans are too sweet and rich. They compete with the meat and the meat ought to be the star of the show. Once people get used to our beans, they’ll start asking the other joints to make ‘em our way.'”
Worgul is an excellent story teller, and occasionally, his writing is profound:
“If I had known Mona’s name I might have felt obligated to inquire as to her well-being in my casual conversations with A.B., and then our conversations might have become something more than casual. They might have become intimate. And we might have become better friends. And better friends bear greater responsibility to one another than do casual friends. If I had known Mona’s name I might have felt obliged to do something if A.B. had said to me ‘My mother isn’t feeling well,’ or ‘My mother needs someone to help her.’ True intimacy requires something of us. And I may have felt guilty when I did not help. Perhaps I wish only to be friendly, without being friends.”
If you’re a fan of good writing, good barbecue, and good stories, I highly recommend pulling up a chair, pouring a couple fingers of your favorite libation, and settling into this book.
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