- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

HOW TO UNSCREW A SCREWED-UP WORLD

By Kinky Friedman,

St. Martin’s Press, $23.95, 268 pages

THIS LAND IS THEIR LAND: REPORTS FROM A DIVIDED NATION

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books, $24, 235 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Both of these authors, like the know-it-all sitting next to you on a plane or at a dinner party, believe they know the Truth, and neither one is the least bit shy about revealing it. The difference, which may determine whether you pay attention or tune them out, is that one employs broad (and often bawdy) humor while the other uses irony and sarcasm.

Kinky Friedman, as readers familiar with any of his 26 books will already have figured out, is the funny one, and the also prolific (15 books) Barbara Ehrenreich the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore author. Preferring one approach over the other would probably serve as a Rorschach test of your personality, but let me pretend to be normal and try to point out the pluses and minuses of each one.

Mr. Friedman’s 51 very short pieces, many of which first saw life in the pages of magazines or newspapers, are arranged under five headings: Advice on Life, Death, and Everything in Between; My Personal Heroes; Advice on Writing; Advice on Going on a Journey; and Advice on Coming Home. Nonetheless, Mr. Friedman doesn’t have much hope the reader will take his advice. Right off the bat he says, “Let us begin this ordeal with a fairly safe assumption: No human being who has ever lived in this world has ever taken good advice.” And why not? Because, he says, of the perversity of human nature and “because of the sanctimonious, constipated, pompous, smug, self-righteous way that good advice is given.” As if to prove his point, a few sentences later the Kinkster writes, “If your goal is to make a lot of money and have a lot of power and that’s all you really care about, you’re a shallow, mean-minded, vacuous excuse for a human being and I don’t want you reading this book anyway. Stop before it’s too late. …

If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who feels it might be nice to marry a prostitute, contract syphilis, kill yourself between two rows of corn and leave a lasting legacy of love and truth and beauty, then you might ask yourself, What would Vincent van Gogh do?” As you can see, on the surface, Kinky Friedman does not appear to be the most serious person in the world. But if that doesn’t bother you, read on and be entertained, highly, while he plants a few serious suggestions subliminally.

Barbara Ehrenreich, on the other hand, may possibly be the most serious person in the world. Here are the titles and subtitles of some of her recent books: “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class”; “The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed”; “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.” Not exactly LOL material.

In fairness, it must be said that Ms. Ehrenreich, who has been a columnist for both Time magazine and The New York Times and has written for Harpers and Nation, is a master at using the short essay (and short book) as a mini-investigative tool. She has become the champion of all those Americans, legal and illegal, who - through little or no fault of their own - find themselves holding the dirty end of the stick. In case you’re wondering if her message is hitting home, consider that “Nickel and Dimed” sold more than a million copies and “Bait and Switch” was also a best-seller.

Like Mr. Friedman’s, her collection is divided into half a dozen categories, each one of which contains anywhere from seven to a 12 short essays or blog entries. So if your bile rises easily, you can stop and cool off before forging on. Among the many targets of her insightful wrath are: class inequalities and inequities; CEO salaries vis-a-vis their lower level employees (she calls them “slaves”); downsizing; illegal laborers; religious coercion; and workplace coercion (in a delightful essay titled “Invasion of the Cheerleaders”). As with all collections, the level rises and falls, and there is a danger that reading too many Ehrenreich essays in a row will bring to mind what Kinky Friedman referred to as the “sanctimonious, constipated, pompous, smug, self-righteous way that good advice is given.”

Neither is “What Would Kinky Do?” an unalloyed delight. Tighter editing might have avoided the annoyance of having to read any number of times that Elvis died sitting on the toilet, Hank Snow in the back of a Cadillac or Edgar Allen Poe drunk in a gutter. But then the laugh lines and the unexpected, off-the-wall descriptions are so frequent and so funny that after a while you don’t mind. In “Zero to Sixty,” he faces up to the fact that “[A]ll being sixty means is that you’re old enough to sleep alone. In my case, having breezed through my entire adult life in a state of arrested development, it’s especially hard to realize that Annette Funicello is gone. … She died a tragic lingering death, I believe, or maybe she is still with us, merely eclipsed by another former Mouseketeer, Britney Spears.”

If you’ve noticed that Kinky Freidman mentions death a lot, while Barbara Ehrenreich keeps insisting that life has to be better than this, you may be on to something. In the end, the comedian cries while the tragedienne smiles. Hmm.

I guess that means both books are worth reading.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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