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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Southern-Fried Detective Story : ARMADILLOS & OLD LACE by Kinky Friedman ; Simon & Schuster $21, 236 pages


If you missed a country and Western novelty act called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys back in the 1970s, you may need a little background to get the extended inside joke that crackles and pops through the pages of "Armadillos & Old Lace," the latest title in a series of offbeat mystery novels by the man who calls himself "the Kinkster."

You see, Richard "Kinky" Friedman is both author and hero of "Armadillos," which celebrates the unlikely exploits of a "middle-aged over-the-hill country singer" who has reinvented himself as an amateur private detective. And so, when the character known as the Kinkster croons a song called "Ol' Ben Lucas," he is mouthing words that were actually penned by the novelist of the same name back in his country music days.

"When it's cotton-pickin' time in Texas," sings Friedman in a display of the in-your-face adolescent humor that he favors, "boys, it's booger-pickin' time for Ben. . . ."

Indeed, "Armadillos & Old Lace" is so thoroughly self-referential that it might pass as a lightly fictionalized autobiography or, at times, a slightly cracked confessional novel. Friedman's alter ego, like the author himself, lives on his father's ranch in the Texas hill country, where he occupies a ramshackle trailer that resembles "a failed time-share arrangement between John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac."

While his father is hard at work running a purely idyllic summer camp (just like in real life), the Kinkster is halfheartedly courting a young arts-and-crafts instructor with a come-hither look and, almost incidentally, dogging down a serial killer who is stalking the old ladies of Kerrville, Tex., and environs.

Friedman clearly enjoys the novelist's prerogative to riff and rave. He invents a patois of his very own that owes a little something to Raymond Chandler but much more to Lenny Bruce: A telephone is a "blower," a skullcap is a "yamaha," a cemetery is the "bone orchard," and "cutting buns" becomes a verb of locomotion. Midnight is "the time Cinderella met the guy with the shoe fetish." And I won't tell you what Friedman means by the phrase "to take a Nixon," but you'll figure it out.

Mystery purists are not likely to find Friedman's whodunit very satisfying. Now and then, Friedman manages to work in some twists--a swarm of killer bees, a trip to the Alamo, a few ghosts and one dirty (and deadly) little secret. But mostly he sets up straw men and knocks them down again, and he indulges himself in what must be regarded as the cardinal sin of mystery fiction--the crucial clue comes too early.

But the hard-boiled mystery subplot in "Armadillos" is almost beside the point. Friedman flashes back and forth between the detective work and what's going on back at the ranch, which is a seismic midlife crisis for a 50-year-old guy who chases women, chain-smokes cigars, and gulps whiskey the way most of us drink our morning coffee--and who possesses the shaky self-esteem of a 13-year-old.

Indeed, what's best about "Armadillos" is Friedman's own struggle to make sense of the world around him, an effort that is sometimes boisterous and buffoonish, sometimes poignant and endearing. He's a cross between Holden Caulfield and Woody Allen, a Southern-fried Jew with an identity crisis as big as Texas and a heart to match.

"I'd become ambivalent about performing country music gigs," Friedman writes of his character and himself, "and I'd come to realize that anyone who uses the word 'ambivalent' probably shouldn't have been a country singer in the first place."

If "Armadillos & Old Lace" is only a halfhearted mystery, it is the wholehearted self-revelation of an unabashedly sentimental man. The Kinkster may come across as wasted and burned out, but we come to realize that he's a sucker for animals and little children and old ladies in distress, a post-industrial Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, a refugee from the real world who sees his father's ranch as a kind of sanctuary.

"The hills seemed to echo their energy and joy," Friedman writes of the sight and sound of children at play on the ranch, "and it was a little sad to think how very briefly they would stay this way before joining all the other gray, weather-beaten souls in the quotidian adult world."

This book--and the whole notion of writing mystery novels--appears to be Friedman's way to put off the day when he must join the rest of us in that world. The Kinkster is a catcher, not in the rye, but in the sagebrush, and that's what is truly appealing about him and his work.

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