Bigger Than Barbecue

'It's not about the barbecue,' he told Angela once. 

'This place is about making something good out of something bad.' It was about turning things around. But that's not really something you can explain to folks when they just want to tell you how much they like the brisket they just ate.

-- LaVerne Williams, Thin Blue Smoke's main character

Some things in life are about a whole lot more than they seem. Take marital spats. On the surface they're about a small detail: Why did you leave the house a mess again? Underneath they touch on larger themes: I don't feel loved and appreciated.

Such is the wonderful complexity of Leawood author Doug Worgul's debut novel, Thin Blue Smoke. At its simplest level it's a book about a Kansas City barbecue joint. Deeper down it's a chronicle of much, much more: faith and race, friendship and community, failure and redemption, good and evil, and enduring love.

Not that a book solely about barbecue wouldn't be compelling enough to make most Kansas Citians turn its pages. But the fictional downtown Kansas City barbecue spot at the center of it all--which seems suspiciously to resemble the legendary barbecue shrine of Arthur Bryant's--becomes the perfect microcosm for Worgul's examination of our gritty and sometimes wonderful, sometimes dumbfounding human condition.

Worgul's main characters all intersect in place and time as customers at LaVerne Williams' Genuine BBQ and City Grocery, a spot referred to by locals as Smoke Meat. Most of the action takes place in downtown KC as the Sprint Center is being built, with local establishments feeling the heat of an impending franchise infusion. 

Smoke Meat owner LaVerne Williams had hoped to make his career taming the heat of pitchers' fastballs until a shoulder injury cut his stint with the Kansas City Athletics down to a single season. Wayward for a time, then jailed as an African American caught in the chaos of the race riots of the 1960s, Williams ultimately works his way toward redemption in the smokehouse of Smoke Meat and the arms of his God-fearing wife, Angela.

After LaVerne and Angela's son Raymond dies an untimely death, the couple "adopts" an unlikely other son, a scrawny, neglected white kid and Smoke Meat employee named A.B. Clayton. Because it's the only place he's ever worked, A.B.'s life schooling occurs mainly at Smoke Meat. His teachers are everyone who comes through its doors, including Ferguson Glen, an ordained priest whose search for God is matched only by his love for bourbon. There's also Mother Mary Weaver, a KC blues-belting icon, and city business developer Bob Dunleavy. Lurking outside the restaurant is Sammy Merzeti, a restless soul with a troubled past. 

Most of Thin Blue Smoke's action is propelled by the vivid interaction between Smoke Meat's colorful characters. Worgul seems to weave their lives together effortlessly, making each personality more real by way of paradox. Like a lot of us, his characters struggle with an internal mix of opposing forces: light and dark, failure and success, doubt and belief, love and fear, loneliness and community. 

As a former writer and editor for The Kansas City Star and other local publications, Worgul seems a master at prose. His clever turns of phrase, use of recurring themes, and wry humor make his book a delighting indulgence. His meandering tales seem reminiscent of those told by Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor, the latter of which he admits is a favorite. What the story lacks in action is made up for in well-crafted description, although the events that propel the end of the novel (no spoiler here) are surprisingly action-packed.

There's plenty of fun, too, in watching Worgul's characters romp through Kansas City. Nary an icon of the city's barbecue, blues or sports traditions is omitted. Oklahoma Joe's, Arthur Bryant's and Gates all get airtime, as do 18th & Vine and other blues venues. The Chiefs and Royals make up a hot topic, with references to the teams' annoying penchants for losing when it counts duly (and wryly), noted by Worgul. 

But in the end, the magic of Thin Blue Smoke isn't really about Kansas City, its sports teams, its food or its music. It's about the community that moves and loves in the midst of these things. And whether it's rising from a restaurant's barbecue pit or a priest's censer, it's about a thin blue smoke that unites us all. 

Q & A with author Doug Worgul

435 South: Why Kansas City?

Doug Worgul: Kansas City's barbecue tradition is rich in history and personality and it's something I know about. And my career as a journalist was devoted to exploring and celebrating Kansas City culture and identity. So it was natural that I would choose Kansas City and barbecue as a setting for the novel.

435: Besides Kansas City, your book seems really about what happens when people get together. Tell us about that.

DW: The story is primarily about love and loss and second chances, as well as fathers and sons, baseball, the blues, whiskey, God and barbecue. Having said that, it's not a plot- driven story. It's character driven. 

435: The story touches on a lot of heavy topics (race, faith, good, evil and love) in a clever and humorous way. How and why do you pull that off?

DW: Life is both tragic and funny. And any honest storytelling will include both. It's also more engaging and entertaining for readers if they are able to experience the full range of emotions when reading a novel.

435: One of your characters is an alcoholic priest who seems to find God and search for him all at the same time. Is there a message in that?

DW: In their most honest and unguarded moments, even the most devout will allow that they struggle with God's silence. For some, this silence becomes a crisis of faith, for others a reason to abandon faith altogether. 

435: What's your day job?

DW: By day, I'm director of marketing at Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue, which is a way, way cool gig. 

435: You wrote a non-fiction book about barbecue that's currently out-of-print. Can you tell us more about that book? Is it coming back?

DW: While I was an editor and writer at The Kansas City Star, I wrote a book titled The Grand Barbecue, which was a celebration of the history, places, personalities and techniques of Kansas City barbecue. And I prefer to say that the book is "sold out" instead of out-of-print. It will probably be re-issued in some form, though probably not until 2012 or later.

435: What's the one thing you'd love to hear from the readers of Thin Blue Smoke?

DW: It's always gratifying to hear that the novel has touched someone's life in a meaningful way--that a reader found truth in it.

435: What's the next big thing for you?

DW: The novel was first published in the UK, and hasn't been readily available here in the States, except through Amazon, or at the Kansas City Barbeque Store in Olathe, next door to Oklahoma Joe's. But, beginning in April, it will be available in America in retail bookstores nationwide. So, that's a pretty big deal.

Look for your copy of Thin Blue Smoke on or in stores next month.

words: Cisley Thummel