'Thin Blue Smoke is an epic redemption tale, the story of two men coming to terms with their pasts. It is also a novel about faith, race, storytelling, bourbon, the language of rabbits, and the finer points of barbecue technique.'
Right, so a novel about barbecues (for heavens' sake don't spell it barbeques, LaVerne and A.B. would see you coming a mile away) a fairly heavy emphasis on both Evangelical and Episcopalian Christianity with some full-on services and a sermon or two recounted verbatim, a man who thinks Richard Adams is in charge of the world and Watership Down is the blueprint for life (I'm not sure how Warren...yes he's really called Warrren... felt about crossing the road, probably not good) and masses of Delta Blues and Gospel musical references that don't feature in my albeit rather limited collection of Joni Mitchell CDs, and you could be right in thinking that this would be a book I'd shove to the bottom of the pile and get to eventually.
I so nearly did and I'm so very delighted that I didn't because this has been another great read from the Macmillan New Writing stable which so far haven't disappointed. It got the first fifty page treatment and I carried right on reading and I have only one complaint, where's the CD?
If ever a book should come with a CD this is it, or a Thin Blue Smoke iTunes download?
Because I am now desperate to hear the playlist that I accumulated as I read including,
Come on Children Let's Sing - Mahalia Jackson
Roadhouse Blues - The Doors
Chain of Love - Big Joe Turner
Riverside Blues - Robert Johnson
and then the Rabbit CD, oh I have to hear that now, every rabbit song ever, brilliant.
Next let's get this sorted right away and I must therefore own up to the shockingly awful state of my US geographical knowledge because this book is set in Kansas City which I thought was bound to be in Kansas and Kansas was probably...er...well...in the middle somewhere.
Well, almost right because Kansas is sort of in the middle but also wrong because Kansas City is in Missouri and I expect you all knew that, but for anyone else who wants to brush up here's some help.
So now that we've sorted the location, and it really helps to do that because this book has a profound and powerful sense of place, what of the book?
Ordinary people living ordinary yet fascinating lives in the hands of Doug Worgul and all centred around a barbecue joint on the corner of 17th and Walnut called Smoke Meat owned by ex-baseball player LaVerne Williams and his teacher wife Angela. This is America held in the thrall of Martin Luther King and gathered behind the counter and around the tables at Smoke Meat a cast of wonderfully engaging characters creating a place that rather oddly I actually felt I belonged to for the duration of the book. The narrative flows effortlessly back and forth filling in histories and events in everyone's lives, each chapter often feeling like a short story in its own right but all wrought with a finely balanced blend of seriousness and humour that isn't easy to achieve.
I knew when to laugh and I knew when not to is about as simply as I can put it.
Infused with themes which sound a bit hackneyed but trust me they are not, of love and forgiveness, faith and doubt, giving and receiving, prejudice and tribulation and a sense of a community somehow in touch with its inner godliness, whatever that might mean and wherever it lay. Thin Blue Smoke has been a mouth-watering, soul-feeding pleasure to read and I emerged nicely marinated in the old ways of Kansas City, Missouri, as if I'd lived there and if I'd known the tune I'd have hummed along to the congregation singing at LaVerne's baptism in Trinity River,
'When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say,
It is well; it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul
It is well; it is well with my soul.'
Even lapsed Anglicans like me can still appreciate the old glory and a bit of delving revealed something else I didn't know about this hymn, and now I see that in the context of this moment in the book, its placement is pitch perfect.
However mention of mouth-watering reading does lead me to my final beef complaint.
No recipes...actually I'm wrong the ingredients for LaVerne's beans are in there, but now I want to try Vinegar Pie (seriously, everyone else was eating masses of it, except me) and what about LaVerne's barbecue sauce (I know it's a secret recipe but I wouldn't tell anyone) and I'm worried to ask but what is 'Pulled chuck' or might I prefer ' Burnt Ends'?
So in the absence of the CD, the iTunes download and the recipes we'll have to make do with this...absolutely top drawer brilliant, makes me want to read the book all over again.
Postscript: A lovely e mail from Doug this morning to let me know that you can find the recipes and playlists here and my thanks to Macmillan who have offered five prize draw copies of Thin Blue Smoke which they will send worldwide so names in comments and we'll draw in a week's time.
Also last chance saloon for entries to the Burnt Shadows prize draw, the draw master is waking from his slumbers and thinking about exercising his paw.