I have a hard time reading fiction.
Here is my problem: I love reading about failure; I love reading about redemption. I crave stories that are realistic, mired in reality, yet somehow outside of it all. I like good and evil to be present, black and white issues framed in the gray of our world. I hate depressing endings, although they most often seem to ring true. I get angry at sloppy literary attempts for justification of life choices, on reading yet another book about a young, beautiful, white person having intellectual and emotional crisis, I can't read another book about an immigrant being struck by one calamity after another, can't read anything gratuitously realistic without becoming despondent, can't read anything else without becoming angry at the gloss they just spun over my world.
It is hopeless, you see.
For a long time now I have been a non-fiction girl, as it seems to be where some of the best stories are these days. But every once in a while I do find a good, fantastical story that speaks to both my intellect and my artistry, which acknowledges my world view while not tying everything up neatly in a bow. Where I find Christ, written between the lines, living in a gray world.
It doesn't happen often, but it is there.
This isn't a discussion of Christian Art (and heavens, I would be the last person qualified to open up that box). This is just a reflection on how phony most fiction reads to me, both inside the Christian realm and outside it. Both areas have their crutches, their bent towards certain resolutions and themes. Very little feels organic, outside of the structures that make people feel a certain way.
I just read a book that made me feel differently. I started Doug Worgul's Thin Blue Smoke on my way out to the exotic midwest and couldn't put it down. My expectations were as low as they had ever been: the author was a Christian, it was a fictional novel set in Kansas City, and the plot lines revolved around baseball and BBQ. This did not seem promising.
But several chapters into Thin Blue Smoke and I was hooked. It isn't a perfect novel, of course, but it seemed new to me and my world of reading, allowing me the chance to enter a world far different from my own.
So the book is about life paths and grief and redemption and all that stuff, and of course there is a lot about barbecue thrown in there as well. In fact, I may or may not have gotten so hungry while reading this book that I made my car companions stop at a place called Porky G's in the middle of Idaho (I may have shrieked in excitement. "Porky G's, Porky G's!" may or may not have been our road trip catch phrase from then on. It may also have been the most delicious pit stop of our entire trip).
All this aside, it turns out the book is about things that make us cruel; about what makes us kind. About the decisions we make in a tiny thousand ways, about the way we see our role in tipping the scales for good or for evil. Scattered throughout the book are short passages on children growing up in small and harsh environments that left me aching for more. The author's description of the hostility found on the desperate places of our society and his reflections on violence (both towards the animal kingdom and ourselves) stunned me, shocked me outside of myself. This book is genre-less, in the very best way.
The writing style reminds me a bit of Leif Enger (his book, Peace Like a River is definitely fiction that falls into the "third way" category--both Christian and not, blowing both realms away). My main critique of Thin Blue Smoke revolves around several of the characters being drawn in such a way that I could never fully understand who they were; the dialogue sometimes feels forced, leaving the characters to flounder a bit. But I loved the pacing, the slow-moving plot evolving into something quite different at the end.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I wondered: why am I so surprised by this writing? Why is this type of fiction the exception instead of the norm? Where are the authors stepping into this chasm, this place where it might be difficult to sell books, this place where we believe firmly both in failure and in the rule and reign of Christ in the here and now?
I'd love to know more, would love to hear about books that have made you feel this same way. I would also love to share Doug Worgul's Thin Blue Smoke with you all as well. I have a digital copy to give away to one commenter. To enter, please leave a comment sharing your favorite work (or author) whom you believe to be writing in this third way. The winner shall be chosen using random.org on Sunday, September 30th.
Good luck, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions!
Full disclosure: Thin Blue Smoke is published by Burnside Books, the same company where my book will be published sometime in 2014. They didn't ask me to write this review, I just felt like it. If anything, I was MORE critical going into my reading of the book because I knew the publishers. I was pleased as punch to discover it more than lived up to its reputation; I recommend it based solely on my own preferences. Thin Blue Smoke can also be purchased online here or Amazon.com; or better yet, hopefully wherever great books are sold in your home town.