Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Let it be: Doug Worgul's Thin Blue Smoke

I just had a week off work, which was nice. I also took a couple of weeks off from writing fiction, which was odd. Don’t worry, I’m not ill. Yesterday I pulled a rather nice flash piece out of the bag.

I had intended to post a bonfire night-themed story up here on the fifth or sixth, but didn’t get round to it. Maybe next year. The moment’s passed for now.

So there’re lots of things I haven’t done during my week off. What I have done, along with seeing some farm animals and visiting NT properties, is finish reading Doug Worgul’s Thin Blue Smoke (which Aliya raved about on this very blog way back when).

Take note. This is a very very good book and I urge you to go out and get a copy and read it. It is is about barbecue, blues (there’s a cameo by BB King) and God, a little bit. Primarily the book’s about love and redemption. So yes, it’s a good solid book, with the chapters consisting of subtly nested short stories. Top notch. Buy it.

What I was struck by when I came to the end of it though is how my understanding of the editing process interfered with how I appreciated the book’s conclusion. Thin Blue Smoke is pretty much constructed from these wonderful chapters that work as standalone short stories. David Mitchell did something similar with Black Swan Green, but Doug’s book is far more tightly plotted and due to this, for me, the achievement is more remarkable. Add to this the spot-on prose, the connoisseur’s appreciation of barbecue and of Christianity and the outstanding characterisation and all is well with the world.

But then, right at the end of the book, I felt like the rug was pulled out from me a little. The ending is serviceable enough, and perfectly plotted. I’m still happy to recommend the book profusely, but the ending (and I’m talking the ending of the book proper and not the epilogue, which is fine) smacked to me of editorial interference. But here’s the rub—Doug tells me this wasn’t the case. The ending is all his and fits with his original vision for it.

My perception was probably coloured by my feelings that the subplot about a criminal jars a little with the tone of the rest of the book, and lends it a certain ‘commercialibility’(I’m sure some marketing and books sales people somewhere use that non-word on a daily basis), but probably more than that it was being aware as I am of how the original version of Aliya’s Light Reading ended and that changes were made to what was can only be described as the blackest possible comic ending, to one with an eye on the potential of a suggested series. After much hard work and one and a half books written, Aliya recently announced that, actually, given market forces, the series is a no-go. Think of something else. She’s fine with it. But the irony is her book was tampered with—weakened in my opinion—to shoehorn in the opportunity for a series that never materialised. Knowing this made me wondered if any such tampering had gone on with Thin Blue Smoke.

I love the fact that as a writer it’s hard for an author to keep me satisfied. I look for the holes and slip-ups in voice and technique and it’s when a book—a book like Doug’s—is capable of being enjoyed by me without a single consideration of the technical process of writing, I know it’s a very good book indeed.

I like, for instance, Laura Lipmann—she of the spiderweb of coloured cord fame from the article Aliya linked to that’s on the WSJ site—and Jason Pinter well enough, but the cracks in technique are yawning ones in comparison to Doug’s writing, and down the scale slides to Mr Brown…

So there should have been no suspicion, really. Yet there was. And my enjoyment, my satisfaction at reaching the book’s end, was marred.

So know this as you go off and buy this grand book (there are plenty of turtles in it too, if you like turtles—I’m kind of ambivalent about them, but if helps shift a few copies), the book is the book the writer wrote. In all it’s glory, and should be enjoyed as such.

Thanks, Doug.


Alis said...

This is a great post, Neil, thanks. It reminds me that I've long intended to get round to Think Blue Smoke and now I really must!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yeah, cool post.

Neil said...

Thanks, gals.