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Meanwhile Back at the Ranch - Kinky Friedman

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Author: Kinky Friedman / Genre: Crime / Thriller / Publisher: Faber and Faber

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

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      19.06.2008 10:15
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      An anarchic romp disguised as a whodunit

      "....And then I'd like to thank Jesus, the world's first great Jewish troublemaker. I'm glad to hear your book's doing well, Jesus. By the way, who's your agent?

      "Okay, these acknowledgements are starting to cut into my cocktail hour. I've got to close now anyway. Things have been a little rough for me lately. I lost my wife last month.

      "In a poker game."

      *

      Before the book has even begun, you taste something of the special flavour of Kinky Friedman in the acknowledgements quoted above. It's a flavour he has sustained now through over a dozen novels, without any sign that it will lose any of its punch and piquancy.

      'Meanwhile Back at the Ranch' (MBatR from here on) is vintage Friedman, a polished exposition of the formula he has made his own. The formula is half detective story, half semi-surrealistic comedy. The stories are all told in the first person and the leading character is, of course, none other than Kinky himself. Kinky fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes, and tends to address his sidekicks as Watson, but the impression conveyed is more of a cross between Philip Marlowe and Groucho Marx, with a few echoes of Johnny Cash (and maybe even Frank Zappa) thrown in for luck, if you can imagine such a thing.

      Don't be silly; of course you can't imagine such a thing. That's why you have to read Kinky Friedman.

      *

      Characteristically, MBatR opens with Kinky musing in his walk-up loft in Greenwich Village, New York City. "For the first time since God gave Gatorade to the Israelites, I had three potentially big cases all going for me at once." He sets fire to Cuban cigars, blows "patient plumes of blue smoke upward toward Winnie Katz's lesbian dance-class" in the apartment above, kills shots of whiskey and discusses the cases with his cat, the Cat, who helpfully says nothing. Then the action begins.

      In the event, only two of the cases are pursued, both concerned with missing individuals. The first of these is Dylan Weinberg, an eleven-year old boy with an unusual form of autism that enables him to be a stock-market genius whilst only being able to say one word ('Schnay' - don't ask). The other is Lucky, a three-legged cat that has vanished from Kinky's aunt Nancy's Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch back home in his native Texas.

      I shall not attempt to outline the plot or describe the action in detail. Suffice it to say that it switches at hectic pace between New York and the Texas Hill Country. Kinky handles the Texas case, and the outsize Texan characters that go with it, himself. The Weinberg case is largely left in the hands of Steve Rambam, one of the "Village Irregulars" - Kinky's Watsons - with chaotic results as he puts more effort into pursuing the missing boy's sister than into solving the case. Much fun, as always, results in the interplay between perennial characters in Friedman's novels: the Irregulars, Winnie Katz of lesbian dance-class fame, and McGovern the newspaper-man.

      There are also local Detectives Cooperman and Fox, who play the traditional role of plodding cops giving a hard time to a private investigator who relies on flair and cuts corners. In fact, a lot of the detective aspect of the novels is surprising conventional; it is the off-beat characters, the wry philosophising and the stylistic flourishes that make them unusual. But this conventionality on the detective side has a pay-off. Friedman doesn't cheat by letting the strands of the plot unravel in frenetic action and wise-cracks. They are all pulled together and the resolution of the mysteries, when it comes, is intellectually coherent and satisfying, more Poirot than Marlowe, despite the tone of the narrative.

      *

      "I believed in Miss Marple. I believed in Sherlock Holmes. I believed that dogs and cats knew secret truths that man, woman and child would never learn....That studying human nature could be more enlightening than studying a case file, I believed that in order to effectively determine guilt or innocence, juries should be impaneled entirely from prostitutes, bartenders and bellmen from sleazy hotels. I believed that cowboy logic, female intuition, native sensitivity and a perverse mind all counted for more than what some Jehovah's bystander said he saw. I believed that clicking your heels together three times might get you home or it might just mean you're a Nazi.

      "The fact that I believed all this horseshit was only mildly alarming to me."

      *

      You're never quite sure with Friedman to what extent it's real life being presented as fiction, and to what extent fiction as real life. Many of the characters in his books are real, for example, the Irregulars and the fellow-members of Kinky's band, The Texas Jewboys (the novel Musical Chairs revolves around a plot to kill them all off).

      Friedman first came to public attention (I settle for this bland compromise after toying with "fame" and "notoriety") as the lead singer of this unlikely-sounding ensemble. The Texas Jewboys flourished briefly in the early 1970s, acclaimed by leading-edge critics, but the field of country music is unfertile ground for satire and irony. The bible belt tended not to see the humour in songs like "They ain't making Jews like Jesus any more". From the other extreme, some humourless politically correct folk took exception to the use of the word "Jewboy", assumed that the band must be anti-semitic, and refused to listen to them.

      Playing Nashville with material more suited to Manhattan or San Francisco was a kickstart on the road to nowhere. Or more exactly, the road to the Lone Star Café in New York, about the only country venue left that would have them, and even there not for very long. The Jewboys disbanded in 1976, and it was nearly a decade later that Friedman re-emerged as a writer, having been "flying on 11 kinds of herbs and spices, and broke" in the meantime.

      "I think it was desperation. I was searching for a lifestyle that did not require my presence."

      *

      Back in the first paragraph I referred to the "special" flavour of Kinky Friedman, having just resisted the temptation to say "unique". Unquestionably, Friedman is a one-off, but he is also swimming in the mainstream of a strong and well-established current, that of American-Jewish humour.

      One thinks of names like S J Perelman and the Marx Brothers, Dorothy Parker, the Three Stooges (among Friedman's own favourites), Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, Ben Reich, Mel Brooks, Art Buchwald - the list is not exactly endless, but it does go on and on.

      One intriguing aspect of this tradition is not so much its wit as the anarchic way in which the wit is deployed, the degree to which it relies on the off-beat and the weird. Friedman is perfectly attuned to this, even in what might seem a discordant note in an essentially urban culture: his Texan antecedents.

      *

      "Being both a Jew and a Texan gave him a leg up on the boisterous, neurotic, irritant personality ladder," wrote Dylan Ferraro, road manager of the Texas Jewboys and, needless to say, occasional character in the books.

      Friedman is certainly as shamelessly larger-than-life as his home state. He is an unabashed self-publicist and plays his trademark black Stetson, cowboy boots, and flamboyant moustache for all they're worth and probably more, not to mention the Cuban cigar. "I'm not supporting their economy. I'm burning their fields."

      In a state of cattle barons, oilmen, rednecks and wetbacks, rodeos and relentlessly simplistic patriotism, a state that executes more convicts than any other, contributes more recruits to the armed services than any other and elects George W Bush, a cosmopolitan Jewish wit of radical views might seem out of place. But in 2006 Friedman, running as an independent in the election for Governor of Texas on a platform that included legalisation of marijuana and gay marriage, attracted a respectable 13% of the vote. Maybe there is more to Texas than meets the eye, or more to Kinky Friedman.

      Allegedly, Friedman lives in a green trailer in which he tours the Texas Hill Country in the company of four dogs, one cat, one armadillo and one typewriter. Perhaps, though it is impossible to envisage him actually settled anywhere other than the loft in the village with his single, silent feline companion.

      *

      Downsides? Too few to mention. Like anything that requires perfect touch and timing to succeed, Friedman's humour doesn't always hit the jackpot. Just now and then a joke falls, if not quite flat, perhaps 45% degrees to the horizontal. But the same has been true of all the great comics, and indeed most great artists and sportsmen. The star quarterback doesn't always complete the 50 yard touchdown pass, nor does the ace slugger hit the home run every time at bat, whatever you remember afterwards.

      With Friedman, as with any other artist, you remember the successes, and there are many successes to remember.

      *

      "One of these days they're going to make a life of my movie."

      *

      Meanwhile Back at the Ranch is published in the UK by Faber and Faber; ISBN 0-571-20951-3. The paperback is £6.99 from most bookshops, cheaper on the net.

      *

      What else is there to say about Kinky Friedman? Oh, did I remember to tell you that he's very funny?



      © First published in its original form under the name torr on Ciao UK, August 19th 2003

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    • Product Details

      Dylan Weinberg, an eleven-year-old boy with a rare form of autism, is missing. A stock market wizard, he can only utter one word, 'Schnay'. Kinky takes the case but he faces a dilemma when Lucky, a cat from his aunt Nancy's Utopia Animal Ranch, also disappears. Kinky decides to put his faith in Village Irregular Steve Rambam, who was trained as both a cop and a rabbi, to help find the kid in New York. Meanwhile, Kinky hightails it to the ranch in Texas, where the only witnesses are a dim-sighted, eighty-year-old lady and a frisky canine named Mr Magoo. Luckily, it seems that Lucky stowed away in the back of Nancy's truck, got spooked by some wolves, and then somehow found his way home. As for Dylan, Kinky has a sinking feeling that Dylan's father, fed up with a mountain of medical bills, may have disposed of his sick son. In fact, Kinky finds him tucked away in a slightly less than Dickensian orphanage where he has been abandoned. It's a double happy ending, and even the great Kinkster is at a loss to explain it. The cat, of course, said nothing.