Thin Blue Smoke is one of the best of the Christian Fiction books I have read recently. It is the only Christian Fiction book that is on my Favorite Books of 2012 list and it is on the list of best fiction books for 2012 from Englewood Review of Books.
I always find it hard to write reviews of fiction books I really like. I never want to give away too much of the plot. And I usually fall back to talking about how beautiful the language is or how engaging the plot.
In some ways what want is to ask you to just trust me and go ahead and read the book. It is only $3.99 on kindle right now.
But asking you to trust me is not good enough. Thin Blue Smoke is not an action packed story. It is a story that you make your way through. At some point I felt like it might never end. And then I hoped it wouldn’t ever end. Thin Blue Smoke is of that class of books that I would call ‘Literary Fiction’. It is not genre (mystery, science fiction, romance). It is about people’s story.
The connecting tissue of the book is Smoke Meat. A small BBQ joint in Kansas City. The owner is a former baseball player. There is a lot of his back story and the story of his family, what happened when he got hurt and was no longer able to play baseball.
His assistant AB is his late son’s best friend. AB was neglected as a child. A mother that was always more concerned with having a man in her life and a bottle or pill to help. He is naive and awkward, but good. And he becomes the son that Laverne no longer has.
Their regular customers include an elderly overweight blues singer, an alcoholic Episcopal priest and professor, a wealthy developer, cops, journalists and more.
This books jumps all over time, from character to character revealing more and more about the common human nature and need of all people. There are lots of mistakes and sins that have brought everyone to where they are right now. But there is also a God that is present, even in tragedy.
This is a book about the journey toward redemption. The conclusion is a bit abrupt and not completely satisfying, but the point of the book is not the conclusion. The point of the story is the journey. So this book feels like Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter as she narrates her life story and shared all of the changes that the world has gone through. But Thin Blue Smoke is less rural of a feel.
Part of what I really enjoyed about this book was its invitation to read slowly. Normally I read a book in a day or two. Thin Blue Smoke I spend two weeks reading. Part of the slowness (in a good way) of the novel is illustrated by the fact that when the story talks about a sermon, it usually quotes the entire bible passage. Many books would reference the passage or give one or two lines. Thin Blue Smoke invites us to actually participate and read the entire passage discussed in the sermon. I believe this happens four different times during the book.
This is not a standard fare Christian novel. It clearly is a Christian novel. God is present here. Thin Blue Smoke presents characters as real people. They drink, have sex, curse, kill, cry and love. This is the type of Christian novel that changes people’s perceptions of Christian novels. Christian novels can be more than thinly veiled evangelism or Amish romance. Christian novels can present true life, the way that we actually live it, not just the idealized way that we wish we could.
Some passages I highlighted:
Laverne talking to his Uncle after he hurt his shoulder and could no longer play baseball and support his family:
Then why did he let this happen to me? Because, son, God is a lot like me, said Delbert. He doesn’t give a shit if you play baseball. God is a lot more interested in who you are, and not much in what you do. Same with me, LaVerne. I don’t really care if you play baseball or not, except for I know you care. It hurts me to see you so sad about this. That’s cause I love you. And I know how much playing in the big leagues means to you. But you’re still LaVerne if you play or if you don’t play. You’re still who you are. And it’s times like these that can make you better. Or they can ruin you. That’s up to you. That’s your choice. Are you going to be a man? Are you going to stand up to this and not let it take you down? Are you going to find a way to make a life for that pretty wife and that new baby of yours? Those are the questions here.
Father Glen from his sermon at AB’s mother’s funeral:
If I had known Mona’s name, I may 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 the need to help. Or, more likely, I would have felt guilty when I did not help. Perhaps I wish only to be friendly, without being friends. Because I never asked, I don’t know Mona Bennett’s story. But, in truth, none of us do. Not even you, A.B. You know some of it, of course. You are her son, after all. But you were only a part of her life for 35 years, and even then only just a part of it. And just as your life consists of more than being your mother’s son, your mother’s life consisted of more than being your mother. She lived things you didn’t live. She knew people you do not know. She feared things that you have not feared and dreamed dreams that were not your dreams. And though you were her only child, you knew only some things about her. But God knows them all. God knows all of Mona Bennett’s story. He knows her, and he has called her by her name.
And another part of the same passage:
A friend of mine once wrote ‘˜When someone knows your name they have a kind of hold on you. When they call you by your name, even from afar, you turn to see who it is that is calling you.’ God has that kind of hold on us. A.B. was talking to Angela about his mother this week, and he asked her if she thought that his mother was in heaven now. The answer to that question is found in what God tells about love and judgment. Love is hard. We try to love one another. But generally the quality and quantity of our love for one another is found wanting, because we find it difficult, if not impossible to look beyond those things that are ugly and unlovable in those we try to love. Even though the things that are ugly and unlovable in ourselves are the very things that cause us to cry out for love. In talking with A.B. about his mother this week, it became clear to me that she was not a perfect mother. But then A.B. was not a perfect son. A.B. would be the first to admit it. None of us are perfect. Thank God, perfection is not a condition of Christ’s love for us. Christ knows we are not perfect. Yet he loves us still. He loves us in our totality. He knows who we are. He knows our names. And he loves us. Better than we’ve ever been loved or ever will be. He remembers what we almost always forget, or never knew to begin with, that we are, all of us, more than the equation the sum of our successes minus the sum of our failures. Because we cannot fathom the depths of such love, we live in fear of judgment. When once I was despairing that God’s judgment of me would be fair and, therefore, in my case, harsh, a friend of mine reminded me that it is Christ who will judge us. He said ‘˜The one who will judge us most finally is the one who most loves us most fully.’