October 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Writing - Malaysia: Humor: Studies in the Novel: A study of the novels of Malaysia RPCV Kinky Friedman
Peace Corps Online:
Special Report: Author, Humorist and Malaysia RPCV Kinky Friedman:
October 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Malaysia: Writing - Malaysia: Humor: Studies in the Novel: A study of the novels of Malaysia RPCV Kinky Friedman
A study of the novels of Malaysia RPCV Kinky Friedman
A study of the novels of Malaysia RPCV Kinky Friedman
A kink in the system: terrorism and the comic mystery novel
On the surface, at least, Friedman could not be more different than authors such as DeLiIIo, Roth and Auster. Where they are frequently lauded by critics precisely for their repudiation of the clamor of mass culture, Friedman's writing revels in its associations with and allusions to the popular. The very titles of his books reveal his immersion in the ephemera of contemporary media saturation: God Bless John Wayne; Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola; The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover. The latter title-combining as it does references to modernist poetry and mid-century American politics-is an indication of the range of cultural spheres Friedman is capable of drawing from throughout his work; a single page of any one of his novels might contain references to, for example, Flaubert, Porter Waggoner, Joan of Arc, Nashville's Music Row, the baby Jesus, Garth Brooks, and George Michael (in this particular case, the page in question is page 105 of Mile High).
In a way, Friedman's entire mystery series constitutes an extended reference to the popular, based as it is in Friedman's own minor celebrity. Friedman first achieved a measure of fame as a country music singer and songwriter, with a prolific career of recording and performing that began in the late 1960s and continues, sporadically, to the present day. Though in many ways he adhered to the rigid conventions of country music (even now he is rarely photographed without his cowboy hat) and became highly respected among critics and his fellow musicians, Friedman's career from the beginning was marked by an idiosyncratic sense of humor and a defiantly oppositional political stance that limited his commercial success.
Certainly few artists have achieved wealth in the country field by highlighting their Jewish heritage, but Friedman not only recorded songs like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" (advocating, albeit humorously, a violent response to bigotry) but actually called his band The Texas Jewboys. Some of his songs were based on crude sexual jokes ("Homo Erectus"), some made bold political points ("Rapid City, South Dakota," described by Friedman in liner notes as "to my knowledge, the first and only pro-choice country song ever wrtten"), some were simply weird ("Somethin's Wrong With The Beaver," in which the title character from Leave It To Beaver is afflicted with suburban alienation), but few were designed to guarantee massive radio play; musically, Friedman has always been a cult figure.
To recognize this, however, is not to deny Friedman his place as part of the popular culture of a media- dominated America, since the apparently "fringe" cult is in fact firmly established as part of that culture (see Star Trek, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the novels of Philip K. Dick). Moreover, while Friedman may have deliberately distanced himself from the mai\nsteam of country music, he did so largely by combining the traditions of that form with other inspirations drawn from the popular-the self- deprecating Jewish humor of Groucho Marx or Woody Alien, the political satire of Lenny Bruce, the musical eclecticism of Bob Dylan.
Beginning in the mid-1980s Friedman turned his attention to another form with a long popular tradition: his mystery series, the central conceit of which is that he himself is both the protagonist and the first-person narrator. The Kinky Friedman featured in the books is an offbeat country musician who still occasionally performs, but who is mostly concerned with his career as an amateur private detective living in a loft in New York City (with occasional forays to his family ranch in, naturally, Texas).2 Kinky is, in most respects, utterly indistinguishable from Friedman, and the details of his biography and career (not only his music career, but also such details as his Peace Corps service and history of drug use) furnish the novels with innumerable plot points and asides.
One entire novel-Roadkill-focuses on Friedman's welldocumented friendship with Willie Nelson. The major recurring characters in the series (including journalist Mike McGovern, the eccentric writer Ratso, and tough PI Steve Rambam, who variously serve as Kinky's friends, foils and sidekicks) are all themselves based, with varying degrees of fidelity, on real people.
If Friedman's strategy here is reminiscent of texts of high postmodernism such as Operation Shylock (where Roth's real-life friendship with novelist Aharon Appelfeld becomes "Roth's," just as Friedman's friendship with Nelson becomes Kinky's, for example) it is no less indebted to the history and traditions of the mystery field. Any number of minor celebrities have written (or, more frequently, had ghost-written) mysteries drawing upon their lives and work, though only Friedman, to my knowledge, has extended such a series beyond a few books and met with such a degree of success. A more significant influence may be the Ellery Queen mysteries, which, though written under a pseudonym by a pair of authors, purported to be narrated by a real-life detective using his own name.
Beyond these specific examples, however, there has been a tradition in mystery fiction, dating back at least to Sherlock Holmes, to treat the stories as real occurrences, albeit disguised out of necessity or carelessness. Holmes fans in particular have for more than a century made a game out of finding ways to explain the inconsistencies and obvious errors in their canon, perpetuating the playful illusion that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely Watson's literary agent. It is the central assumption of such fan readings (that the stories point to an historical "truth" which can be uncovered) that, I think, Scanlan would point to as placing them firmly in the realm of the popular; surely no reader of Operation Shylock has believed that such an unveiling is possible or desirable.
Holmes's continuing presence throughout Friedman's series is acknowledgement of the connection; a hollow bust of the great detective's head sits on Kinky's desk and holds his cigars, Kinky frequently quotes from or parodies Doyle in his dialogue, and the central plot of the book preceding The Mile High Club, Spanking Watson, concerns his efforts to determine which of his friends is truly his "Watson." Friedman also follows the tradition, familiar in mystery series going back to 22IB Baker Street, of lavishly furnishing the books with recurring images, items and settings that encourage the continuing reader's sense of familiarity and comfort.
Kinky's loft on Vandam Street, with the aloof and cynical cat, the espresso machine supplied by grateful mobsters, the black wooden puppet head atop the refrigerator, the two red telephones, and the perpetually noisy "lesbian dance class" in the loft above, has become as comfortable to fans as Nero Wolfe's brownstone or Travis McGee's houseboat, the Busted Flush.
In many ways, then, the Kinky series initially appears fully contained by the traditions and conventions of the mystery form, fully contained by the limitations that license Scanlan's lack of interest in the popular. To a large degree, however, Friedman has succeeded in marking the form with his own idiosyncratic aesthetics and voice, much as he did earlier in the equally tradition-bound form of country music. He has, for example, increasingly deviated from the mystery story's usual dependence upon a formulaic, logic- driven plot. The early books in the series do feature such plots, and Friedman's labor at maintaining them is often painfully transparent.
A Case Of Lone Star, for example, the second of the Kinky novels, centers around a series of murders committed at a club where Kinky is performing, and the solution to the case rests upon his realization that the killer is basing his methods on Hank Williams lyrics. This painfully tidy and clever resolution would be more at home in an hour-long TV drama than a novel, and draws a little too obviously on Friedman's past career. As the series progresses, however, the murders that have constituted the traditional basis for the mystery form are increasingly displaced by the more ambiguous dilemmas of missing persons, and the "solutions" to the mysteries themselves become increasingly amorphous, even hallucinatory.
In Steppin ' On A Rainbow, for example, Kinky's friend McGovern goes missing in Hawaii and turns out to have become involved with a mysterious cult of natives, some of whom may be ghosts. McGovem is recovered, but exactly what occurred remains stubbornly unclear. In Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch, at this writing the latest book in the series, Kinky becomes involved with the searches for a missing autistic child in New York and a missing housecat in Texas; both are found, though neither turns out to have been in any real danger, and neither search ever excites the sense of urgency we might expect.
Like many of the other late books in the series, the novel is a mystery in name more than in form.
If plots have been increasingly pushed to the side in Friedman's books, what has been increasingly highlighted in their place is the quirky, humorous, idiosyncratic voice that has obviously become the main attraction of the series. Friedman's cowboy hat may speak of Texas, but his bushy eyebrows and mustache and omnipresent cigar point to another constant influence: Groucho Marx. The dialogue in the series, filled with double entendres, puns, put-downs, and absurdist philosophy, is highly reminiscent ofthat in Marx Brothers films. Similar linguistic play marks the narrative voice of Kinky himself, which is replete with colorful expressions and references.
Midnight in the Kinky books is never midnight, but rather "Cinderella time;" noon, similarly, is "Gary Cooper time." If the voice is playful and allusive, however, it is also frequently crude or juvenile; to move one's bowels, in Kinkyspeak, is to "take a Nixon," and explicit sexual references and jokes occur often. More than being simply humorous, however, Kinky's voice is reflective, nostalgic, romantic, and frequently more intelligent than it appears. Though some critics have objected to the stream of one- liners that the voice occasionally descends to, Friedman has allowed Kinky's ruminations to take center stage more with each passing book.
In Mile High, for example, two consecutive chapters in the middle of the book-at a point when Kinky is waiting for his loft to be invaded by terrorists, the State Department, or both-are marked by a complete suspension of the plot and taken up instead with Kinky talking to his cat, first reading her an unusual obituary he has been sent and then relating Oscar Wilde's story of "The Happy Prince," on the grounds that "All cats have a fondness for ... Oscar Wilde. They seem to revel in his boldness and sensitivity" (139).
The devaluation of plot and elevation of Kinky's comdie voice may distance Friedman's series from the conventional mystery, but they also put the books in danger of being perceived as nothing more than jokes. Certainly compared to DeLiIIo or Auster the Kinky mysteries are lightweight, fast reads, demanding little of the rigorous attention Scanlan privileges in a reading experience; they can be read, and almost certainly are usually read, purely for the kind of transient pleasure that is the specialty of mass culture. However, there are occasional traces of something more lasting in the series, and it may even be less than outrageous to wonder if Friedman does not find in them, at least at moments, the middle ground of alterity and counternarration that DeLiIIo advocates for the writer in "In The Ruins Of The Future." To a degree here I am speaking primarily of Kinky's frequently voiced regret at the breakneck pace of contemporary consumer culture, his nostalgia for the authenticity of an earlier time.
Ruminating on a long-lost love who had been a stewardess for a defunct airline, for example, Kinky reflects that "stewardesses are an extinct species; now they're all flight attendants. The reality is that Braniff Airlines has gone the way of the dodo bird, the Edsel, and the quaint early American notion of stopping to help a stranded traveler instead of cutting his throat" (Mile High 18). DeLiIIo writes that "The terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past" and clearly regards this as an untenable desire, while at the same time expressing sympathy for the protesters who want to hold back "the white-hot future." Friedman, like DeLiIIo, like the protesters, is caught up in the dominance of a rush to a purely consumerist culture he can neither endorse nor meaningfully resist.
His nostalgia is not the rose-tinted collective amnesia mindlessly celebrated within the popular, but rather a more ambivalent longing for an alternative to the ceaseless rush of the contemporary that seems to trulyvalue nothing.
While Friedman's nostalgia subtly challenges the mass culture his novels appear to participate in, the most serious obstacle to a reductive view of his books as fully participating in a culture of "quick sound bites" and "glossy images" comes, I would argue, with the plot of The Mile High Club, and most particularly its troubling resolution. Briefly, 3 the story revolves around the contents of a pink suitcase, which comes into Kinky's possession when Khadija, a beautiful woman he meets on a flight to New York, asks him to watch it while she goes to the restroom (or, in Kinkyspeak, the "dumper").
When the plane lands Kinky finds that Khadija has vanished, and feels that he has little choice but to take the case home with him. There he finds that he has become an object of interest to the State Department, which is clearly seeking both Khadija and her case. Kinky could, of course, turn the case over to them; his decision not to do so appears to arise partly out of a sense of chivalric duty to Khadija and partly out of a fear that he will be in trouble himself if he does so, but derives largely, of course, from the private detective's traditional reliance on his own abilities and distrust of authority.
His sense of chivalry does not, however, prevent him from getting his friend Rambam to open the locked case, wherein they discover "a large plastic Baggie full of enough passports to make a customs agent put in for overtime." The passports are from various countries and in various names, though many of the women pictured resemble Khadija and many of the men pictured appear related to her. Rambam's opinion of the cache, troubling enough when Mile High was published in 2000, is even more so now: "'I think you're looking at how the next bunch of World Trade Center bombers are planning to get away'" (65).
This line of dialogue introduces the theme of terrorism into the novel, and Mile High never really gets more specific than this concerning exactly who its "terrorists" are; they are never identified or understood beyond simplistic representations of Middle Eastern Muslims opposed, for unspecified reasons, to Israel and the United States. To a large degree, in other words, the novel participates in a populist understanding of terrorism that emphasizes hostility and otherness over nuance and specific political aims.
Kinky hides the passports in the bottom of his cat's litter box and continues to withhold them both from the State Department and from Khadija, who does eventually reappear. His hope that she is merely a dupe of the actual terrorists is greatly promoted by their two sexual encounters, though neither, significantly, involves actual intercourse. Israeli agents also become involved in the hunt for the passports, as does Khadija's brother Ahkmed, who late in the novel invades Kinky's loft and nearly kills him in a brawl. Shortly after this fight, Khadija calls and begs Kinky to come to her hotel room, but the call is a ruse-when Kinky returns from the unkept rendezvous, he finds that the passports have, at last, been discovered and taken.
Significantly, it is not Kinky but Rambam who puts together the pieces of the puzzle, realizing that the terrorists could only have realized that the passports were in the litter box by combining knowledge from Ahkmed's invasion (when the cat, in protest, has scattered her waste throughout the apartment) with knowledge from Khadija's earlier visit (before this occurred)- and that, in fact, there is no Khadija and never has been a Khadija, but only Ahkmed in disguise.
Again, the immediate inclination here must be to treat this as a joke, played largely at the expense of traditional mysteries and the conventional image of the private eye as masculine hero. Friedman has not only managed to craft a mystery that hinges upon the placement of feline feces, but to maneuver his decidely heterosexual hero into not one but two homosexual encounters. That the hero is, to a large degree, himself might be taken simply as adding to the joke, though there is clearly a subversion of normative genre expectations. What truly renders The Mile High Club disturbing, however, and expels it from the realm of the merely popular and transient, is its conclusion.
In the very brief final chapter of the novel, which takes place some undefined amount of time after the body of the narrative, Kinky is again on a plane when a beautiful woman asks him to watch her bag. This leads directly into the novel's final paragraph: "After she'd gone, a flight attendant came by with a batch of newspapers and I took one at random and unfolded it. As long as I live I'll never forget the headline. It read: TWA FLIGHT 800 BLOWN FROM THE SKIES. TERRORISM SUSPECTED" (223).
The implication that the passports Kinky failed to adequately preserve played a role in the tragedy is clear and, particularly given the invocation of an actual airline disaster, provides a stunning end to the novel, one that could not be suffered to stand in the context of any normative detective story. Unlike Bill, "Roth," or Sachs, Kinky has never defined himself primarily as a writer-but here, like them, he is forced into silence, the voice that is his essential and defining characteristic taken from him. If, as Scanlan suggests, the most troubling implication of postmodern fiction about terrorism is the "nightmarish possibility ...
that the serious novel has no power in the social world" (161), then surely The Mile High Club is just as troubling in its suggestion that the autonomous individual, the hero who can act outside the control of the dominant system, is just as powerless, just as impotent, as the writer. Kinky's faith that he could navigate between the homogenizing power of the state and the absolutism of the terrorist is given ample support in the traditions of popular texts, but that faith is demonstrated here to be radically misplaced-as misplaced as "Roth's" faith in the independence of the writer. With his idiosyncratic voice, his disregard for normative, totalizing plots, his fondness for narrative as a means of truly personal expression, his suspicion of the collective enterprise of consumer culture, Friedman had seemed to provide in the Kinky novels a counternarrating voice such as DeLiIIo desired, perversely placed in the context of the most conventional of popular forms, literally a kink within the system.
That such a voice cannot survive, even as a figure of fun, suggests that DeLillo's optimism may be unfounded after all, that we may have no choice but to accept the totalizing future over the apocalypic past.
1 We might even confess that a large part of our motivation in writing this article has been to bring Friedman to wider critical notice, hoping that this confession will be taken in the spirit of integrating autobiographical impulses into other genres. If the authors I discuss can work the details of their lives so openly into what is called fiction, perhaps I can do so as well in what is called criticism-if only in the literally marginal space of a note.
2 In discussing Operation Shylock I followed the convention that has become established among critics of referring to the character in the book as "Roth" and the author as Roth. Beginning here, however, I will follow my own preference and refer to the character in this series as Kinky and the author as Friedman, a formulation I hope will prove easier to follow.
3 This summary necessarily streamlines The Mile High Club greatly, ignoring a number of twists and reversals in the main plot, a secondary plot involving Kinky's decision to spy on a potential love interest, and a number of the digressive anecdotes and reveries that are the primary characteristic of the series.
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Story Source: Studies in the Novel
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