The third way of fiction: A review (and giveaway!)

Edited to add: Kelley, commentator #5, was picked as the winner! Congratulations Kelley!!!!!


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 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; or better yet, hopefully wherever great books are sold in your home town. 

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13 thoughts on “The third way of fiction: A review (and giveaway!)

  1. Can I recommend a first novel? It’s from someone who has been writing radio dramas for the BBC for 20 years: “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. I think it lives in that third way. It’s about a very unreligious man who goes on a journey to repay a debt. Along the way, there’s a lot about faith, but it’s set in modern, post-Christian England, so not faith in the way we talk about it on this side of the pond.

    P.S. “Peace Like a River” is one of my all-time favorites.

  2. J.R. Goudeau says:

    I like the term “Third Way.” You asked for one, but how could I pick? Here are my favorites: Francois Mauriac (especially Viper’s Tangle), Marilynne Robinson, Shusaku Endo, Flannery O’Connor (every. blessed. word.), and Graham Greene. I really want to read Thin Blue Smoke. I’m kind of in love with everything you’ve said and what I’ve seen on their website about Burnside Books.

  3. Beth says:

    I think secular fiction (particularly non-cheesy fantasy) does this well…sometimes in surprising genres. But it sounds like you want overt mentions of Christ?

    I love “My Name Is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok.

  4. Haley Baker says:

    I want it! I need good books to download onto my iPad!

  5. I am not a fiction girl either – I feel so validated and glad we are friends! But others (like Sarah Bessey) have challenged me in oblique ways to incorporate more fiction into the reading cue. Good reads this year: Out Of It by Selma Dabbagh, set in modern-day Palestine introduced me to the world behind the lines, so to speak. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar… read in one sitting. Book is about an Egyptian dissident between western and non-western worlds, family dynamics, searching for home… liquid writing that just flowed like a fountain.

  6. No Graven Image by Elisabeth Elliot, a decidedly Christian author, but this book fits the category. Written in the late 1950’s, after the tragic death of Elliot’s husband, it tells the story of an idealistic young missionary whose dreams are dashed repeatedly when she actually gets to Central America. It does not have a tidy ending. It explodes the platitudes. It certainly shaped my world view when I was in college 30 years ago.

  7. I second the Marilynne Robinson, too, quite satisfied with Gilead. I mentioned it in a post three years ago:

  8. I, too, love a good true story. Non-fiction trumps fiction for me almost every time. But in the past few years, three fiction books have been worth reading (and rereading!) because of how they fit into this “third way.” They are “No One Is Here Except All of Us” by Ramona Ausubel, Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and my very favorite, “The World to Come” by Dara Horn. “Anna Karenina” is the only one to be overtly Christian, but oh! the redemption and beauty amidst pain in the other two.

  9. Godric by Frederick Buechner is one of my all time favs. It was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1980 but lost to A Confederacy of Dunces. Buechner thinks he lost because he was a Presbyterian minister, but I think he had some stiff competition…Dunces is amazing. Anyhow, Godric. Read it.

  10. I, too, tend to read more non-fiction than fiction but love stumbling upon great fiction books that pull you in. For me, “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger was one of those books. It’s beautifully written and the characters that are so well developed that by the end of the book you feel like you know them personally and don’t want the story to end. Themes of faith, love, forgiveness, and grace run deep and draw you nearer to God and leave you longing for Heaven.

  11. Annie says:

    I’m a little hesitant to comment, because I’m no avid reader… but I read Geraldine Brook’s March because I love Little Women, and I felt it had that gritty, redemptive story arch. But her Caleb’s Crossing was even more thought provoking. It speaks deep to the themes of mission and cross cultural ministry too. You might like it. George MacDonald comes to mind too… I’m happy to check out the other stories listed here, because what you describe here is what I’m longing to read.

  12. oh i hope i’m not too late! my favorite is definitely East of Eden by Steinbeck. changed. my. world. also ruined me in a good way. as far as reading fiction goes. oh, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

  13. Sandra says:

    A Thousand Splendid Suns by Hosseini still grips my heart 4years after reading it; a beautiful passion narrative.


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