The Usual Mayhem

A Potpourri of Book Reviews

Mystery novelist Kinky Friedman
photograph by Evans Cartlage

A blurb from Simon & Schuster, plugging the publication of Kinky Friedman's ninth and latest mystery novel The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover ($23, hardcover), claims that "all the critics agree that the Kinkster is a `true original,'" and furthermore, so do "Kinky's fans, who multiply with each new novel." Now, is it just me, or does this make it sound like Kinky's books act like some sort of fertility drug? You wonder if a winking Kinky wrote that copy himself.

Actually, the thrust of the blurb is undeniable, there is no other Kinky Friedman out there. To read one of his mystery novels with the same expectations one might have for the latest from, say, Walter Mosely, Lawrence Block, Robert Parker, or any other of the best living purveyors of the tough guy, private-eye genre, would be like listening to Kinky's music and expecting to hear George Strait or Randy Travis. You might be put off or you might be thrilled, but you will notice the difference.

I might point out that just being a
musician/detective novelist is not all that novel, in and of itself. The first musician/private-eye novel that I know of is also one of my favorites:
42 Days for Murder,
published in 1938, features a private eye named Shean Connell, an inveterate gambler, alcoholic, and barrelhouse piano player. The book's author, Roger Torrey, was all of those things, in addition to being one of the leading writers for Black Mask magazine (until he was fatally shot while in the arms of another man's wife.) And there are others, including myself, but, as previously stated, none of us is the Kinkster.

As with all Kinky Friedman novels, it could be argued that The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover is not so much a mystery novel as it is another spicy, rollicking ballad about its author, who lives a marginally fictionalized life in an alternate world where he is not only a semi-famous country & western singer but a private eye sharing a Manhattan loft with his cat, his bourbon, his espresso, and his cigars. The story starts familiarly enough: The Kinkster is alone in his loft on a New Year's Day, musing about the death of Hank Williams over a cup of hot and bitter espresso when his soliloquy is interrupted by a prospective client named Polly Price, who wants him to find her missing husband. Of course, Kinky suspects that Polly is not completely on the up-and-up, but after some rumination about having seen too many films noir (is there such a thing?), he vows to the cat: "I'll find this bastard if it spoils my whole weekend." Now who could dislike a P.I. like that?

In short order (in the world of Kinky, this means after a series of jokes, puns, reveries on Hank Williams, Sherlock Holmes, and/or several slices of life in New York too weird to be made up), the Kinkster is shot by the D.C. police, locked in a burning limo by a Chicago chauffeur, and tangled in a web of intrigue involving dead gangsters (one of whom is known as Leaning Jesus) and the F.B.I. And it all comes down to being about some loot stashed by Al Capone and dirty tricks perpetuated by one of the wartiest gremlins in American history, J. Edgar Hoover.

So much for the plot. I don't think people read these books for the plot. They read them for fun. There's plenty of it in this one.

It's been said that nothing is sacred in a Kinky Friedman book. It also appears at times that Kinky has never met a pun he didn't like, nor a double entendre, nor has he ever heard a well-worn figure of speech he couldn't put his own inimical stamp on. ("Like I've always said: You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can't wipe your friends off on your saddle.") But just when it seems that Kinky's stories are all about the rituals of smoking, drinking, and music, and cracking jokes (not that there's anything wrong with that), you turn the page and scroll through an essay like the one about 1953, the year young Kinky's parents bought Echo Hill Ranch and turned it into a children's camp, also the same year that Hank Williams died and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for being Russian spies, also the year Kinky's parents took him to see Shoshone the Magic Pony. Shoshone danced and moved so humorously that young Kinky laughed so hard he forgot about Hank and the Rosenbergs, even though he was sure that Shoshone was really two circus performers dancing around inside a pony suit. The joke is that he was wrong. Shoshone was a real pony.

The question for some might be: Is there a real detective novel inside this pony suit? Although I might beg to differ with Willie Nelson's blurb that "Kinky is the best whodunit writer to come along since Dashiell what's-his-name." If, that is, I thought he was being serious. The point, actually, is that all mystery novels are fantasies and the very best of them are exercises in surrealism. Kinky's novels are a journey not down Raymond Chandler's mean streets as much as they are a cosmic ride through Kinksterland with the Kinkster in the driver's seat, and only the latter's rules need apply. -- Jesse Sublett

Actor Ethan Hawke has written a novel called The Hottest State (Little Brown, $19.95), and when reading it, comparisons to films come more quickly than do those to novels.

Not too long ago, there was a movie titled Kicking & Screaming in which Ethan Hawke could have been cast as the lead (but was not). It was about two young, intelligent people fresh out of college and the crazy things that are said when people fall in love. In one scene, Grover (played by Josh Hamilton), spends the afternoon drinking with Jane (played by Olivia d'Abo), who, like him, aspires to be a writer. As they leave the bar, both drunk, Hamilton's character attempts to catch up with Jane and as she slows up to let him, he says, "Hey, just think for a moment if we were out of college, away from all this scholastic stuff, and having spent many years of life together. We were an old couple. So that if I turned to you and kissed you, you wouldn't think anything of it..." Jane answers, "Yeah, well?" "Well, I just wish we were an old couple," says Grover, as the camera walks away, leaving them alone. As Henry Miller and Anais Nin did, as F. Scott and Zelda before that, as so many bohemian souls have, the two have fallen in love.

It is wise course, common to many a first-time novelist, to write about what they know. In fact, all good writers, famous and forgotten, do exactly that -- some more obviously than others. The Hottest State opens by introducing its main character William, an actor who is neither struggling nor famous but somewhere comfortably in between, managing to pay the rent. And in the case of William, Hawke borrows blatantly but with great immediacy from his own past and experiences. Like Hawke, William is an actor, raised in Texas, whose parents married young and divorced only slightly older.

The story revolves around William and his lover Sarah, who meet and fall quickly and madly in love in New York City. As they walk home from a bar where they have just met, they stop in Washington Square Park. Sarah, a singer who works during the day in childcare, pulls out and recites from a book of poems by Adrienne Rich. William returns the favor with a poem ("all four pages, I might add") from memory by one of the lesser-known but better Beat poets, Gregory Corso. The poem includes a line about another man, like William, who has never been able to settle down. "Not that I am incapable of love it's just that I find love as odd as wearing shoes."

Thus begins William and Sarah's bohemian romance, one that eventually finds the lovers in a Paris cathedral, surrounded by tourists, playing the part of a couple about to be wed and, perhaps, settling down to marital bliss themselves. Within the story, Hawke demonstrates the techniques learned from his own idols -- Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, and Sam Shepard --and combined them with his experience as an actor in popular coming-of-age films like Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. Hawke, who is also the co-founder of a theatre company in New York catering to young playwrights, imbues the book with his ability to listen, observe, and -- with wit and insight -- recall. There are chapters, here and there, that concentrate on William's upbringing, growing up in Texas and his parents, but the story's strength lies in William and Sarah's relationship.

Along the way, Hawke also introduces us to unforgettable characters like Decker, an aspiring writer-type."[Decker] was the youngest of eight brothers... One day after making him breakfast, [Decker's mother] asked him if he would play hooky to keep her company. He said he had a big test... He hurried home from school that day... and found his mother had slit her throat." Like many Ethan Hawke roles, tragedy seems to be close behind.

With The Hottest State, Ethan Hawke has proven what I believed true about him after reading an article well over a year ago in the pages of Rolling Stone. As an actor, Ethan Hawke thinks and learns; with this book, he proves he can write.

-- Jeremy Reed

In the be-anything, do- anything atmosphere of the Sixties, Hope Fairman is a housewife and mother living in Houston, Texas. Hope is a woman happy with the familiar and enchanted with the unfamiliar, loving equally her two children and the Civil Rights Movement. However, when her husband divorces her, taking the children in an ugly custody battle, Hope is deprived of everything that has until then defined her as a person. Left with only the Cadillac that she has never learned to drive, and with no marketable job skills, Hope must rebuild herself from the ground up.

Hope's Cadillac by Patricia Page (W.W. Norton and Co., $25) is a familiar story in more than one way; not only will Hope's predicament be painfully real to more than a few women, especially women of our mothers' generation, a slew of novels have been written on the theme of women abandoned by divorce or other circumstances and forced to assume unexpected responsibilities. Author Patricia Page seems to know this. With a touch as mesmerizingly smooth as the Cadillac of the title, she avoids cliché by vividly, tenderly, evoking Hope Fairman's naïveté and the excitement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. It's all new to Hope, the vitality and exuberance of massive change, and so it is all new to us. And when change takes an unpredictable turn, leaving Hope drifting and alone -- well, that's new to her, too, and we can't help but feel her anguish.

Hope is a strong, funny, likable character, and Page surrounds her with a cast of equally likable friends, acquaintances, and lovers. Certainly, Hope's character could carry the book, Page obligingly supplying her with the appropriate number of expected "colorful" Sixties artifacts: the hippie wife, the Black revolutionary, the EST and Esalen-indoctrinated guru who believes in Free Love as a means of spiritual development. But Page is too canny to fall into the trap. Each of her characters is vividly developed, real enough to be walking the street. Like Hope, they're all a little lost; like Hope, they are all desperately certain that a better time is coming.

The main image of this story is not the Cadillac -- of course Hope has no choice but to learn to drive that car, and it's no surprise when she does. It is instead Hope's photographs, through which she demonstrates her love of "the mismatched, the inexplicable, and the haphazard." "Photography," she says in a scene near the book's conclusion, "is the art of loss." Hope's discovery of the personal strengths that enable her to endure loss, while still remaining intelligently optimistic, make this book less a Woman Abandoned tale than a (nearly) classic coming of age story. And Patricia Page's observant, tenderly detailed storytelling and skillfully handled characterization make Hope's Cadillac a fine novel.

-- Barbara Strickland

In post-post-modern times, surrealism is a bit of a trip down memory lane for anyone old enough to know what it is. One could hardly hope for better examples for the nostalgic or for the uninitiated than this pair of offerings.

My Education: A Book of Dreams by William S. Burroughs (Penguin, $10.95 paper) is remarkable for seeming to be exactly what it is supposed to be: a dream book. The shocker is that Burroughs's dreams are really fairly ordinary -- for Burroughs. Burroughs dreams rather more of Algiers than most of us, and when he dreams of famous people, they often are famous people that he knows. While there is more methadone and firearms than I dream of, it seems peculiar that the logic of his dreams is not especially twisted, but is much like the logic of anyone's dreams, and he flies about New York as you or I might in dreams. Burroughs is more articulate than most of us, so his dream book is more expressive: "Being conceived is like riding in a car driven by your father . . . faster, faster, faster . . ."; "Children by my bed who turn into rats that bite me. Big rats of an orange color with longish hair"; "I jump off an iron balcony and swim through the air uptown. Meet two naked angels about sixteen. They say it's their first solo flight."

There is not much here of typewriters turning into ferocious insects or images of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Perhaps this is all too light and too mellow for hardcore Burroughs fans, for those who take Burroughs very seriously, but it is really a very pleasant book to take in a bit at a time --trying to save some for later. And that is how I think it should be taken, not as a book to be read through at a sitting, but as a kind of I Ching, an oracle to be consulted on occasion.

Kangaroo Notebook by Kobo Abe, translated by Maryellen Toman Mori (Knopf, $22 hard) is one of the best books I have read this year, and perhaps one of the finest examples of surrealism in literature ever written. The astonishing thing is how vivid the most impossible scenes are -- for weeks afterwards I see the particular vision of Japanese Hades, the radish sprouts growing out of the protagonist's shins, the squid-like urine bag, attached by catheter, pursuing the Atlas hospital bed, which is the latest model, self-propelled and able to negotiate city traffic at an incredible clip. Contributing to the effect for the Western reader is the uncertainty as to which places are supposed to be like real places and which of the demons really have a place in the Japanese pantheon.

The title of Kangaroo Notebook makes the most sense of anything to do with the novel, by which one may gauge what an experience the rest of the book may be. It is merely a suggestion for a new product that a salary man placed in the suggestion box three months ago. He is a small cog in a large business until at breakfast one morning he discovers radish sprouts growing from his legs. Then he is directly off to a doctor's office, a doctor whose appointment policy was written in Wonderland. By page five or six we are off in a world more dreamlike than dreams.

Unfortunately, there is some concession to reality -- like the films noir which insisted on there being a source, such as a radio, for the background music. The man is delirious with some serious medical condition and we recognize that it is almost certainly terminal. Yet, time and again we are lured back into his delusions, and the thing about delusions, really thoroughgoing delusions, is that they seem realer than real. Hell Valley, and its child-demons -- whose working conditions are regulated by the Labor Standards Act -- and the tourists who come to hear the child-demons sing their pathetic songs will stick in the mind long after many a realistic novel has passed through without leaving a hint of an impression.

-- Lars Eighner

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