One of the attractions of series fiction is that the reader can return to a familiar community. The novels of country-singer-turned-novelist Kinky Friedman, which feature country-singer-turned-detective Kinky Friedman (for clarity, let’s call the latter fellow by one of his nicknames, the Kinkstah), feature fictional versions of Friedman’s real-life loved ones, from Willie Nelson—Friedman’s “Village Irregular” fans include many celebrities—to his own family. In Friedman’s 15th mystery, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, these cronies—save Steve Rambam, a private investigator in both real and fictional lives—are scarce. Still, Friedman proves himself loyal to both readers and friends—the man’s-best-friend kind in particular—by offering quality time up front with his most beguiling, and beguilingly described, recurring character, the Kinkstah’s longtime live-in feline companion:
“It’s almost good to be alive,” I said, paraphrasing my father.
The cat did not respond. She did not believe in paraphrasing anybody. If a cat can’t quote things precisely, the cat nearly always prefers to remain silent. If people pursued this same feline wisdom there’d be a lot fewer misunderstandings, a lot fewer wars, and a lot fewer people ripping off Oscar Wilde at cocktail parties.
The Kinkstah, who lives in a West Village walk-up, is a hard-boiled good egg, a guy who barks into the blower “Start talkin’,” brags about his morning tent pole, and goes into his rain room to take “a Nixon”—but gets all Doris Day when it comes to critters. Faced in this book with two cases—a missing person and a missing pussy—he’s much more interested in finding the cat.
The missing person is an 11-year-old autistic boy, whose only word is the enigmatic “Shnay.” The Kinkstah’s initial investigation leads him to the boy’s bickering parents and dishy half-sister (“It was a rather sad commentary, I reflected, that while Dylan’s parents were hoping against hope that I would find their son, I was already halfway hoping that I could hose their daughter”). But it’s a halfhearted hard-on; a third of the way through the book, he hands the case off to Rambam, who of course gets the girl himself (with his “patented kosher meat injection”—eeeww!), and heads to Texas to investigate the disappearance of a three-legged cat named Lucky from an animal-rescue center (a real place: see www.utopiarescue.com).
This visit spurs some uncharacteristic mawkishness from Friedman:
Surely the whole world was a rescue ranch, I thought. Everyone was busy trying to save something. Some people saved money. Some spent their time attempting to save other people’s souls. A few endeavored to save the lives of other creatures on the planet. A few even tried to save the planet. But the inexorable truth was that nothing could ever be truly saved. Like love, it could only be given.
But he saves himself from inexorable bathos by beginning the next paragraph: “There were large quantities of dried cat vomit on the living room floor of the lodge.”
Still, Ranch could use more raunch—more of the stinky juices of life, fewer of the misty mind-clouds. There are fewer menacing figures, grievous wounds, and big guns here than in your average Nancy Drew, let alone your average Friedman novel, and the perpetually horny, only occasionally lucky Kinkstah gets even less action than usual. (The only creature that gets cozy with his wedding tackle is a sleeping tomcat.) And Friedman the author lets Friedman the gumshoe wrap up one of the two cases by a bit of half deduction, half deus ex machina that even fellow wiseass/softy Tom Robbins wouldn’t sink to.
Whereas Friedman offerings such as Greenwich Killing Time and Armadillos & Old Lace are chock-full of laughs and wordplay, Ranch makes it seem as if Friedman’s reservoirs are a little low. (Or maybe he’s just happy. When Spanking Watson was released, in 1999, Friedman told an interviewer, “At the moment, the books I’m writing, each one seems to be the best one. All I have to do is continue to be unhappy and I’ll be fine.”)
Don’t read Ranch for the plot—or if you do, don’t read the book jacket, which blabs three-quarters of the story. Read it for the milder-than-usual but still-welcome laughs (“The rhythm of the falling rain sounded like Neil Sedaka had been bugled to Jesus and had come back outside my kitchen window to play my fire escape like a xylophone”), the inventive urban legends (Asperger’s syndrome as Nazi curse? The Three Stooges as Brooklyn building contractors?), and the useful advice from a highly irregular friend:
Never attempt to remove cat vomit, or cat turds for that matter, from any object until the particular detritus in question has fully dried….#Just take the object, in this case the boot, out into the sunshine and let it dry naturally.