At my first full-time library job, processing course reserves at Pitt’s Hillman Library, I had a wonderfully eccentric coworker who seemed to get a real thrill out of doing the opposite of what people expected. He would, for instance, wear a coat and tie on Friday after wearing t shirts to work all week, pretend like he didn’t believe that dinosaurs ever lived when grad students were within earshot, and, with little provocation, dance much more nimbly than you might expect given his 250+ pound frame.
It was thanks to one of this guy’s contrarian habits – choosing books based solely on their covers – that I learned about Kinky Friedman. It was a long time ago, but I remember very clearly that my friend was attracted to the bright green cover of Kinky’s 2003 title Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned. Being much more refined than my friend, I went so far as to read the jacket and determined that anyone who gets a blurb from Joseph Heller and Steve Allen is probably worth a look, and the rest is history.
I would guess that I’ve read more of Kinky’s books than those by any other author, which kind of surprises me because I wouldn’t say that he’s my favorite author. But then again, I wouldn’t say that stir fried green beans with tofu and brown rice is my favorite food (far from it, in fact) but I’ve had it for dinner at least once a week for probably a decade, and I suppose that Kinky’s novels are the same thing to me — wholesome, quick, easy, and comforting.
Kinky’s novels are detective stories in the finest Raymond Chandler tradition. In the place of Marlowe, however, we have Kinky, a semi-retired Texas country singer residing in lower Manhattan. I have a soft spot for reluctant amateur private eyes, and Friedman is indeed that, getting himself and a regular cast of friends dragged into complicated cases each time around. Friedman the narrator is detached and stoic, reacting to danger, heartache, and other troubles with a puff of cigar smoke, a shot of Jameson, and a massive dose of homespun wisdom. Throw in some punny titles (the title of this post is my poor attempt at aping Kinky’s style, using one of his own works, a hilarious satire of people critical of feminism), country music references, and plenty of irreverent humor, and you will perhaps see why Kinky’s formula has been so successful for him.
Some of my favorites have been:
The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover (Simon and Schuster, 1996) is Kinky’s version of political intrigue. His search for a missing person takes him to D.C. and Chicago and brings the attention of both the FBI and the mob. The title of this book (a T.S. Eliot reference) is my favorite of Kinky’s, just barely edging out…
A Case of Lone Star (Beech Tree, 1987) This one finds Kinky in his element, delving into dive bars, country music mythology, and the seedy underbelly of show biz as he investigates the murders of some well-known country singers. Hank Williams lyrics were enclosed in a letter sent to the victims, which makes this perhaps the only case in the series in which Kinky is a qualified investigator.
Armadillos and Old Lace (Simon and Schuster, 1994) takes Kinky out his Manhattan digs and back into Texas hill country, where he has gone to get away from the danger of his big city life. But of course trouble follows Kinky, this time in the form of a number of mysterious deaths in his town, all women in their seventies. As our hero discovers the connections between the victims, he gets a good reminder that small town life can be just as sordid as life in the Big Apple.
The above are just my favorites; you can really start anywhere in the series and, in all honesty, these books are pretty much all the same thing. What you get is a fun glimpse into the mind of a true original, a cowboy who did a stint in the Peace Corps, a country singing psychology major, the great Kinky Friedman. To paraphrase the Kinkster, you can pick your favorite books and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your favorite books off on the saddle.
P.S. In addition to being an author, Kinky has attained notoriety through no less than two other ventures: country music and politics. I can’t say much about his political career, but he was a great country singer for over a decade before he published a book. The Library has a copy of his classic Sold American on CD, and his albums turn up occasionally in shops if you look enough.