Grace Ombry’s second novel will draw you in, keep you up past your bedtime, and make a home in your heart. The storytelling craft on display in Smokin’ and Cryin’ is masterful. It’s written as a series of letters, news clippings, legal depositions, and other scraps of evidence that piece by piece, reveal the story of a 70s teenage rock god’s meteoric rise to fame and then mysterious disappearance. The multiple voices not only capture the feel of the era, but also immerses the reader in the illicit joys of spying on someone’s private affairs without the frustrations of real archival research, with its myriad dead ends and incoherence. In this story, each juicy new tidbit gives you exactly the thing you needed to know next.
Ombry conjures (and occasionally skewers) characters with stunning efficiency. Better than just about any writer I’ve read, she knows how to shine a light on most important truth about them, how to bring whole, complex humans to life using short strings of words. She also writes young children better than anyone I’ve ever read. The relationship between the young rock god and his baby half-sister makes me tear up again just thinking about it.
The only thing that strikes an occasional false note, and this is really only in retrospect, not in the reading of the book, is that slightly too many of the characters are occasionally possessed of Ombry’s own devastating wit. An elder statesman of rock gives the young protagonist a talking to about how “The word *groupie* is a shit stain on the undershorts of your vocabulary” that’s honestly alone worth the price of the book. His brother, referring to the down-low queerness of a couple of the band members, says, “You think you spot a freak flag flying? Your only job is to salute.” An A&R rep for a record label that tried to sign the band writes, “Smoky Topaz knocked my socks off. They knocked everybody’s socks off. When the smoke cleared, I guarantee you no one was wearing socks anywhere in Ingham County.”
But if the worst thing you can say about a book is that perhaps too many of the characters are possessed of the same sparkling wit and deep insight about human behavior as the author, that’s basically the opposite of damning with faint praise. Praising with faint damnation? You only wish you lived in a world where everyone is as witty and insightful as her characters occasionally get to be, by virtue of being created by her. Reading this book is the best approximation you’re going to get of that better world. No wonder I already wish I could go back.