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The importance of being Kinky
Country-singer-turned-mystery-writer Kinky Friedman rises each morning in his little green trailer deep in the heart of the Texas hill country and tilts at America's sacred cows like a modern-day Don Quixote on mood elevators. His warped mysteries, together with a catalog of highly irreverent country songs from his wasted-minstrel days, represent the most wickedly funny sustained attack on racism, bigotry, and hypocrisy since Lenny Bruce.
Starting with his first mystery, Greenwich Killing Time in 1986, through such fractured who-cares-who-done-its as Armadillos & Old Lace, Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola and The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, Friedman's eponymous black-Stetsoned, cigar-chomping alter ego has stumbled ever blindly toward, if not exactly enlightenment, then random illumination. He may eventually solve the crime, but more often than not the clues seek him out as he holes up in his Greenwich Village walk-up with a disinterested cat and copious amounts of Jameson's Irish whiskey to assist cogitation. The reluctant sleuth is aided by a loose assemblage of New Yawk barroom denizens collectively known as the Village Irregulars. Messrs. Ratso, Rambam, McGovern and the rest also are real people, rendered, one suspects, just slightly more irregular as they pass through the author's Wal-Mart typewriter. ("About the last typewriter in Texas," he says proudly, having returned to the Austin area several books ago).
When last we visited the cockeyed world of country-singer-turned-amateur-sleuth Kinky Friedman (in Blast from the Past), a chunk of ceiling plaster, dislodged by Winnie Katz's lesbian dance class upstairs, had transported the vicar of Vandam Street on a comatose trip back to the '70s. His 12th misadventure, Spanking Watson, continues in the Sherlock-Holmes-on-a-bender tradition. The Kinkster concocts a cold revenge on his upstairs neighbor, and of course things go immediately awry. With an almost criminal glee, Kinky dupes and recruits his colorful cronies to find a would-be assassin of Katz, then unleashes them on the unsuspecting Winnie and her Danskin-clad students like a horde of locusts on a summer field. When he learns that someone actually is intent on killing Katz, the merry chase begins in earnest.
"Spanking Watson is the search for the perfect Watson," Kinky explains in his smoke-sanded baritone. "It's a challenge I put out to all of the Village Irregulars to try and infiltrate the lesbian dance class upstairs. Ratso becomes one of those guys you always see in an all-female aerobics class, the kind of feminine nerds that get involved in that. And all of these idiots do infiltrate the dance class. They get up there and then Rambam bugs the loft for me. They do it under the belief that a death threat has been written to Winnie Katz, which I've shown them. Of course, I've written it myself when I was drunk. It's kind of Machiavellian. A little darker. But I think it's funnier."
Kinky's is perhaps the least likely of modern literary success stories. In the '70s, young Richard Friedman parlayed his musical talent, knack for social satire, and Semitic birthright into semi-success on the fringes of country music as Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. The band's stage shows were outrageous, thanks to Friedman's redneck-baiting, chauvinistic stage persona, and such bitingly hilarious anthems as "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and the tongue-in-cheek, anti-feminist ode, "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed." Country music has never been fertile soil for comedy, much less satire, so it was little wonder Kinky's music delighted the critics and offended almost everyone else. Let us note here that his "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" remains the only country song ever recorded about the Holocaust.
"It took courage back then," he admits. "It did. That was before Howard Stern. It took pawn-shop balls. We were a country band with a social conscience - always very dangerous."
The band came to make its home in perhaps the only country bar on the planet that would have them, New York's Lone Star Cafe. By all accounts, the party was great. "I met everybody in those days. Andy Warhol. Everybody came by," he says. But by 1976, the party was over. It took Kinky a few years to, uh, refocus and try his hand at a new medium - mystery writing. To borrow a title from one of his songs, when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window.
"I think it was more like desperation," he admits. "I was searching for a lifestyle that did not require my presence. The Texas Jewboys had disbanded a decade earlier and I was living in New York, flying on 11 kinds of herbs and spices, and broke. So I attempted to write the first book by borrowing my friend McGovern's typewriter."
Another pal, radio talk-jock Don Imus, pulled strings to get Greenwich Killing Time to Simon & Schuster. Since then, Kinky mysteries frequently appear on the New York Times bestseller list and have been translated into 17 foreign languages.
"It has definitely been a financial pleasure for the Kinkster," he admits. "It's more than music has really ever been. Of course, as I always say, money can buy you a fine dog but only love can make it wag its tail."
Both Kinkys shamelessly traffic in such bons mots. "This is a Cuban cigar," he'll say. "I'm not supporting their economy, I'm burning their fields." Or "I'm the oldest Jew in Texas who doesn't own real estate." Some avid readers contend that these politically incorrect witticisms and rapier-like turns-of-phrase are the real reason to pick up a Kinky mystery. In fact, in tales such as Roadkill, which takes place on tour with Kinky's compadre Willie Nelson, the plot seems to disappear altogether in a cloud of peculiar-smelling smoke.
"The problem with the Willie book was that I lost so much by taking the detective out of his natural setting. I lost all the Village Irregulars and the cat. And I only found that out halfway through. I fly by Jewish radar. I write like Oscar Wilde behind bars. I don't structure a lot of this, and I think, in part, that if there is any freshness to these books, any flavor, that's the reason."
If Roadkill fell short by Holmesian standards, it nonetheless brought Hollywood calling. "The latest idea is to do Roadkill with F. Murray Abraham as Willie and Lionel Richie as me," Kinky says, giving no hint as to whether he's serious. (Asked whether he would consider playing himself, Nelson replies, "Stranger things have happened. Kinky starts these rumors, you know. And then they come true.")
In fact, the movie idea got its initial boost from a surprising source: President Clinton. "He invited me to the White House for an awards dinner honoring the arts. He must have been on medication because, out of several hundred people, he sat me right next to him at the power table there. He proceeded to try to get my books made into movies with the lady who's the head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing."
Equally surprising, the idiosyncratic musings of a Lone Star Jewish iconoclast have been bestsellers in Germany, Holland, and England. Explanation, please? "The rest of the world sees these books as a commentary on America," Kinky says. "It's unconscious commentary on America. I find that women and little old ladies are really picking up the books. Even though the books are becoming increasingly profane, they're also possibly becoming increasingly profound."
How close is the fictional Kinkster to his creator? "I think the books are very close to home. They represent an inward turning. I often write with an utter disregard for the reader. That's the most honest way to write. At the moment, the books I'm writing, each one seems to be the best one. All I have to do is continue to be unhappy and I'll be fine."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Naples, Florida.