Letting Saigons Be Bygones: Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola reviewed

Friedman, Kinky. Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. 300 p. 0-617-86922-1.

Amazon.com.

I don’t know about writing prefaces to books. I used to just not read them. In academic books they are primarily a place to name-drop the other academics who served as your advisors, gave your tenure committee good reviews of your work, who had informal conversations with you that probably inspired part of chapter six, or toward whom you feel some sense of obligation since you teach in the same department. Once you start getting into a small sub-field (like Theravada Buddhist studies of Southeast Asia) you start to notice that there are groups who all thank each other in little cliques. When they all start thanking your professor, you’re in trouble.

Fiction being a bigger world, it’s unusual to see a name I recognize. But in the Acknowledgements, Friedman thanks Don Imus, referring to him as “my longtime friend and spiritual and sexual mentor.” Imus, you may recall, was the subject of a scandal in 2007 when he made some racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. It turns out that he’s done that on more than one occasion…he also runs a charity for kids with cancer, has been clean from drugs and alcohol for 20 years, and has been battling prostate cancer since 2009. He and his wife are vegetarians. I imagine that, like Kinky Friedman (who wrote the song “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” that contains pretty much every racial slur I’ve ever heard), Imus thinks of himself as someone who can deploy unsavory language as a way of drawing attention to our incorrect assumptions about the world, someone who in some sense fights to repair the power imbalance created through the use of racially charged language. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t; maybe he doesn’t deserve to have his whole life tainted by one ill-advised remark. Or maybe he does. At any rate, when I saw Imus mentioned, I thought twice about reading the book.

But then I read it anyway, which is why I’m writing a review. Now you know.

So, Kinky Friedman. The Kinkstah writes books about himself and his friends and his cat, who is always referred to as “the cat.” Kinky’s friends have names like Ratso, Rambam, the Bakerman, McGovern, and so on—one name names, most of them. They solve mysteries. Frequently these books are set in New York, though a few of them are set in Friedman’s home state of Texas. They are written in the tones of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett and contain innumerable references to other works of detective fiction. Detectives referred to include Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Inspector Maigret. Other literary references abound—for example, he writes, “Emily once wrote, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’ Well, hope was flappin’ like a November turkey at the moment” (78). Emily here being, of course, Emily Dickinson. On the previous page he introduces two dogs named Pyramus and Thisbe and makes some lewd references to the story of Lot’s wife. You could say I find these books amusing because they are a chronicle of my misspent youth in the humanities.

Kinky has his own language and his own rhythms. The telephone is a “blower” and it usually gets “collared” when it rings. A cab is a “hack.” A “Nixon” is…well, I won’t tell you, but it’s something a cat might do in the shoe of its enemy. All of one’s nutritional needs can be fulfilled with Jameson’s whiskey, espresso, and cigars. And like Nero Wolfe, he rarely seems to leave the apartment, letting the clues come to him. The other things you need to know to understand the Kinkstah is that he served in the Peace Corps in Borneo (Malaysia) in the 60s, that he was raised Jewish and toured with a band called “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys,” and that he once ran for governor of Texas under the slogan “How Hard Can it Be?” He also runs an animal rescue (I believe it is funded by a line of salsas he sells—the salsa is, to my recollection, pretty good).

Am I painting a picture here?

This is a book from another era in some sense: In 1993, no one has a mobile phone, so Kinky spends a lot of time “collaring the blowers” on his desk. He smokes everywhere, including in restaurants. The New York in which he lives has probably begun to undergo the decrease in crime written about by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and by the Stevens Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics, but it is still a tough, gritty, dangerous place. In short, he lives in a world that is very much divorced from the safe, politically correct, liberal city I inhabit. But while Friedman peoples his environment with gritty people who use unsavory language, I am continually attracted to his desire as a satirist to subvert everyone’s assumptions about the individuals they meet. For example, in one scene Kinky gets into a hack and remarks that the driver’s “appearance and brusque behavior clearly indicated that he came from a country that began with an ‘I’” (40). He believes the driver hates, him noting the way the man’s “curry-colored eyes [glare] at [him], shifting with evil intent like the sands of distant dunes” (40-41). On arrival, he asks the man where he’s from, and gets the response “Tel Aviv, man” (41). Kinky thinks, “Country did start with an ‘I’” (ibid.). This desire to show people how their assumptions may be incorrect is at the heart of all good satire, and it is what makes a book like this really different from off the cuff remarks made by people like Don Imus.

So, to this book in particular: At the Bakerman’s funeral, the guy’s father asks Kinky to find a documentary film about Elvis impersonators that Baker was working on when he died. Kinky promises to do this; however it seems that Baker’s assistant (Legs) had the reel and he’s not answering his phone. Meanwhile, a former girlfriend (Downtown Judy) comes back into his life just as another girlfriend (Uptown Judy) is kidnapped. Then Legs is found dead—in his apartment, as in Uptown Judy’s, was Kinky’s phone number written on a pad of paper. Kinky and the Village Irregulars will go through a few more murders (and one beating courtesy of a local mob boss) before they find the film and figure out how all these things are connected.

This book was less funny than the other Kinky Friedman novels I’ve read (Armadillos and Old Lace and The Mile High Club are the others)–Baker’s death at the beginning casts a pall over the fun, and one does come away with the (probably legitimate) sense that the book is less about the mystery than about the journey, the process of walking around NYC in the winter in a cowboy hat, mourning the death of your friend.

That feels a bit perfunctory—I have written now about 950 words of introduction to the series and only two paragraphs concerning this particular book. Maybe that’s because overall I enjoyed this book less than I recall enjoying The Mile High Club (which, if you’re looking for a hilarious book about cross-dressing Mossad agents, is the book you are looking for).

Anyway, the book is a good, quick read.

One other thing—a post-script on the book’s post-script, as it were: Friedman writes a very short paen to his cat (“the cat”); it seems her undisclosed name was Cuddles, and she was his companion for fourteen years. A macho, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking cowboy who names his beloved cat Cuddles is basically as good a summary of the inherent contradictions of Kinky Friedman as I can come up with.

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