Monday, June 17, 2019


If you’re on holiday now, as I am sure you think you should be, it can only be helpful for me to share my favourite holiday reading. This is not to indulge in autobiography, just to indulge in indulgence.

My holiday reading, for at least 10 years from the early ‘90s, was enlivened by three authors who each produced a new novel annually. Robert G Barrett, Kinky Friedman, and Donna Leon. Barrett has departed the planet, Friedman seems to think his oeuvre is complete, and Leon is still at it.

Her latest, Unto Us a Son is Given, I have just finished. It is the best-written of all her (my count) 29 novels. She has toned down her tendency to preach, although there is occasionally a preoccupation with the sexually unusual. Often she picks up on current concerns in Venice, but this one isn’t particularly localised in that way. An entertaining read for people who want to be reminded of Venice.

The lawyer in me finds fault with this sentence at the end of Chapter 7:

“The man walked through the door and pulled it closed.”

See what I mean? This is a difficult sentence. The man walked through the doorway, not through the door which is the thing he pulled closed. Polysemy yes, not “wrong” but distracting. "Exit, pursued by a bear" indeed, Mr Shakespeare.

Sometimes I wonder too about her accuracy, or at least her choices. For example, she has her protagonist walk, at the beginning of Chapter 8, taking his usual route, to Rialto from his office at Rio San Lorenzo, via Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, whereas one would have thought it more convenient to get there via Campo Santa Maria Formosa. I’m not showing off - anyone can use a map, but, to be frank, I find it more convenient to go that way.

But I can show off: a current concern in Venice is the route taken by the large cruise ships, one of which got out of control last week and injured some Australians and a New Zealander (and for a reasonable assessment of the incident, see the magnificent blog by Erla Zwingle). They go past my view of the lagoon several times a day ...

Kinky Friedman is by far the wittiest of these three, and of many others. He sets most of his stories in New York, with a cast of characters closely resembling his real-life friends, and starring himself as a private eye. One, Ratso, appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review (Netflix), and although he seems not to have particularly endeared himself to Dylan he does mention Kinky Friedman as one of the three great song writers. You only have to hear his “They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore” to know what Ratso means. Friedman’s description of Ratso in The Love Song of J Edgar Hoover, p 85:

“... rumours of his sartorial improvement had been greatly exaggerated. He still looked pretty much like Ratso. Pink trousers with Elvis Presley song titles scrawled all over them in hot purple. Unfashionable and unpleasant-looking racoon coat and coonskin cap with the creature’s head attached, eyes sown shut. Antique red shoes which, I knew from past experience, had once resided on the wheels of a man who had gone to Jesus.”

Ratso was smoking a cigar, and Friedman comments on its high quality. Ratso replies:

“ ‘Yeah. These are top-drawer. Sorry I don’t have another one to give you. My lawyer got this out of a special humidor that was given to him by a former client.’
‘I’m glad to see they’re good for something.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Lawyers.’ ”

Barrett wrote stories for men, or at least from a strongly male perspective. His approach was to give a detailed account of the daily activities of his protagonist, Les Norton, including his sexual routine which had little variation but which apparently also had some appeal for a female readership. Given the detail, I found it strange that in none of his numerous books does Les Norton, or anyone else, masturbate. Strange, given the minute details of practically everything else. Friedman, in contrast, embraces the topic. Here, in the book mentioned above, at p 81, we find:

“ ‘There’s got to be something I can do.’
‘You can practice masturbating with your left hand,’ said Rambam, as he headed for the door.
‘I’m afraid that’s impossible,’ I said to his large, retreating back. ‘My penis sloughed off when I was working for the Peace Corps in the jungles of Borneo.’
‘That would explain a lot of things.’ ”

I find that Barrett and Friedman are re-readable, but Leon, although enjoyable for fans of Venice, is more of a oncer.

Well, it’s 28 degrees in Venice as I type this. All one can do is head for the fridge for another of those cold bottles. I left and closed the door.