Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new biweekly book column. Every other week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well.
This week’s edition of Carpe Librum is presented in honor of Maddie Hasson. Our hometown heroine is currently appearing on the big screen as Billie Jean Green, Hank Williams’ last wife, in “I Saw The Light.” The film drove me back to “A Case of Lone Star” by Kinky Friedman and “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler.
A Case of Lone Star
By Kinky Friedman
Beech Tree Books 1987, 189 pages
The Big Sleep
By Raymond Chandler
Knopf, 1939, 277 pages
Country rock-cult celeb Kinky Friedman began writing mystery novels with a fictionalized version of himself as the main character. In “A Case of Lone Star,” a psychotic serial killer, who believes himself to be Hank Williams, starts killing country music singers who play the Lone Star Café, a country music club in Manhattan. The killer announces his intentions (and methods for each death) by sending his victims sheet music to Hank Williams’ songs. Though the joke and references are modern (and incredibly erudite), the voice is Phillip Marlowe from Raymond Carver—if Marlowe was on the other side of a country-music career.
The world was first introduced to Philip Marlowe in the 1939 novel “The Big Sleep.” Honestly, Marlowe is not the greatest detective; he isn’t bothered by loose ends. He has his own ideas about right and wrong, and double crosses are all game. But what he lacks in bonafides he makes up for in storytelling skills. Basically the voice that has come to exemplify the Sam Spade detective shtick from film noir is Marlowe’s voice. He speaks in first person directly to the audience and always has women trouble, a drink and a bad taste in his mouth where humanity is concerned. In spite of all that, he does have his own personal moral code and a tendency to side with the underdog.
Friedman appropriates the voice (or pays homage to it, depending upon the reader’s perspective) for the voice of his narrator in the mystery series. It is actually a pretty fair appropriation. Aside from his hard-drinking, womanizing smart-ass exterior, Marlowe loves chess, poetry and philosophy. In real life Friedman was a young chess champion and anyone who writes country music understands poetry, so the appropriation of the character isn’t really much of a stretch.
Actually, Kinky Friedman is an endlessly fascinating topic: His satirical country-music career and mystery novels are just the tip of the iceberg. He has run for elected office in the state of Texas as a Republican, Democrat and an Independent. He launched his own cigar line, served in Peace Corps and opened an animal sanctuary at his Texas ranch. Part of what makes his mystery novels so fun and wonderful is the way he brings all these elements of his life to the page. The writing is witty, fast-paced and smart, all while holding to the rules of the genre. He clearly honors Raymond Carver, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, and of course Dasheil Hammett. But all his joking aside, he really does love music—country music specifically. I’m not sure how one could pursue a career in that industry without admiring Hank Williams. Kinky certainly is cognizant of the enduring power of Williams’ catalog and legacy.
One of the plot points turn on a missing photograph that is described as showing two little boys standing in front of a BBQ restaurant with a very tall man wearing a white cowboy hat, and looking at the camera with the saddest eyes the viewer had ever seen. Combined with murders linking two dollar bills, highways and dances never seen before, the book ramps up with an intensity that mirrors Williams’ music and life.
Both Chandler and Friedman came from far more prosperous and advantageous backgrounds than Williams. Chandler certainly lived through his share of hard times—some of it self-imposed through his own hard drinking, womanizing, hard living, and some through uncontrollable circumstances (The Great Depression). Though Friedman came from a very supportive family and had the advantages of an education, anyone who has seriously tried to launch an arts career understands that anything would be easier to accomplish.
Williams’ debut at the Grand Ole Opry claims to have been the first performer to receive six encore calls. Friedman, always joking on the straight, claims to be the first Jewish performer at the Opry. Friedman never will achieve Williams’ level of success or influence as a performer, but in “A Case of Lone Star,” he pays beautiful homage to the man and his enduring place in the hearts and minds of many (not just the deranged killer in the novel):
“In a far more important sense, Hank Williams, like Jesus or Joe Hill, in random haphazard order, never really died. People still listened to Hank’s words and Hank’s voice, and there was a magic about the man that had conquered the mortal boundaries of geography, culture and time.”