Rick Koster’s ebook “Poppin’ a Cold One,” published by Kensington, combines cultural commentary, humor and horror. To say it’s a funeral home mystery is to miss the nuance of Koster’s wry outlook on everything from aging southern rock bands to cruise ships, pornography, gambling casinos and reality TV. We spoke earlier this year, for a piece that originally appeared in The Day newspaper of New London, Conn. Rick Koster will speak about his work, which also includes histories of Texas and New Orleans music, on Sunday, July 28, at 6 p.m. at Contemporary Theater, 327 Main St., Wakefield, R.I. – Betty J. Cotter
Q: In reading this book I had the simultaneous thought: This is the sickest thing I’ve ever read, and the funniest. Did you worry about offending anyone, or did you just think, hell, I’ll offend everyone I can?
A: I’m a fairly tasteless person but, even so, I believe that, if American popular culture hadn’t managed to completely offend ME, I would never have written the book. The explosion of so-called reality television and the depths to which folks will plunge to either profit from or participate in just ridiculous and humiliating situations – all in the quest for celebrity – both horrifies and delights me.
As for the “sickest” reference, you’re of course talking about necrophilia. Two things happened independently. A friend sent me an actual calendar published by a company that makes caskets – and each monthly page had a decidely living bikini model posing next to a coffin or in some funerary context. They weren’t acting like they were dead; it was just hot babes in swimsuits in a funeral home! For some reason that’s even more bewildering than if they’d supposedly been corpses. The second thing was the huge success of “Girls Gone Wild,” the video series where random women at spring break or Mardi Gras or whatever expose themselves and sign away the rights to their images – for nothing.
It occurred to me: whatever you could envision in the context of video exploitation – no matter how extreme or weird – there’s an audience for it. And that’s where the idea of underground necro-porn as a plot device came from. Finally, there are I believe two fairly graphic scenes in the book in this context. I knew they were extreme – but I hope they were also very funny and, most importantly, helped establish the tone of satire for the rest of the story.
Q. You obviously did a lot of research, and you acknowledge some of the people in the funeral home industry who helped you. What sort of questions did you ask? And what sort of reaction did your questions get?
A. In my work for The Day, my friend and video colleague, Pete Huoppi, and I do an occasional series called “Behind the Scenes.” We did one about what it’s like to work at a funeral home, and the process of doing that story was very educational as to the machinations of the funeral industry aspects civilians don’t see – whether embalming or cosmetology or cremation and so on. Once I was actually writing the book, I was able to observe an embalming procedure, drive a hearse, background preparation for a viewing, and so on.
I did ask industry professionals about necrophilia – and, yes, they were understandably a bit defensive. I don’t blame them but I had to ask. Look, are there necrophiles in the world? Yes. Are there necrophiles in the funeral business or who work in morgues or any other situation where they’re in proximity to dead bodies? Yes. But by all accounts and studies, necrophilia is a very rare affliction or predilection.
Q. One of the great things about this book is the asides, when, very briefly, the narrator goes off on this wild tangent of social commentary. Sometimes I did a double-take as I realized, of course, he’s making this up. My favorite was the Wal-Mart cruise ship, the Dolly Parton, which “combined ‘the lively good times of pro bowling with six all-you-can-eat buffets, wet T-shirt tractor pulls, and nightly chautauqha tent meetings.” Were you just storing this stuff up?
A. Having grown up in the south, where the book is set, there are plenty of utterly ludicrous scenarios that play out in front of your eyes every day. It’s similar everywhere, I suppose – each region of the country assuredly has its own stereotypes that can become ripe for satire – but, yeah, I think most writers observe stuff that happens in the every day world and file it away. As for the many alluring options to be found on the Dolly Parton cruise ship: part of the fun in writing stuff like this is to make it close to perceived reality. “That can’t be real, can it?” At the same time, I have a certain affection for the folks who’d take a cruise on the Dolly Parton. If I could afford it – and it was real – hell, I might take a cruise on the Parton. Probably just a short one, though. Maybe a long weekend.
Q. The names of the characters also are so distinctive. I thought, believe it or not, of Sinclair Lewis. While Lewis certainly would have blanched at your subject matter, your send-up of the funeral home industry is not that far removed from his satire of such professions as real estate (“Babbitt”) and evangelism (“Elmer Gantry”). Are you a Lewis fan? And where did you get names like Brad Sheepcake and Kip Quigley?
A. Odd you should mention Sinclair Lewis. He was the answer on a “Jeopardy” question last week, and my wife Eileen and I had a brief conversation about how much Lewis we’d read. Yes: I loved “Gantry” and enjoyed “Babbitt.” “Main Street” not so much. In terms of odd literary names, you really can’t beat him – unless it’s the all-time champ, Charles Dickens.
My editor, Gary Goldstein, told me early on that, in a comic novel, the villain must have a weird and distinctive name. I think, in the initial drafts, Brad had some prototypical New England blue-bloody surname name like Buckley or Brewster. When Gary said to get ridiculous, “Sheepcake” just popped into my head. As for Kip Quigley, it’s a name that sounded to me like a guy who would have been a nerd growing up – and indeed Kip had those “high school loser” qualities that helped define and shape his development. I say that with affection: I would have been perfectly happy to have been named Kip Quigley.
Q. The book also has a cinematic quality to it. Can you imagine it being filmed? I picture Sheepcake looking a little like Steve Zahn, who plays the DJ in Treme.
A. Ha! I love Steve Zahn. He’d be great. Do you know his agent, by chance? While writing, I actually pictured Brad as more of a handsome but melancholy rich yuppie – the sort who’d spend his summers sailing off Martha’s Vineyard and staring out to sea. Maybe a young Kennedy type.
Here’s a weird thing … I can see the characters in my mind because they emerged fully formed in my imagination. So they can’t “look like” an existing actor or actress because they already exist unto themselves. Does that make sense? Having said that, I was watching “Jeopardy” last year – yes, we watch a lot of that show – and this was long after the manuscript was finished and turned in. And a contestant came on and I instantly used the remote and froze the screen. I said to Eileen, “Look, THAT’S Kip Quigley!” The contestant was a guy named Justin Sausville and he is EXACTLY what Kip Quigley looked like in my brain. It was disconcerting. Justin was a multiple champion, too. If indeed this ever did become a movie, I’d have to write into the contract that Justin Sausville has to play Kip.
Q. There’s so many threads of musical commentary in the book, and music is all tied up in the resolution of the plot. My favorite reference is when you’re describing Kip’s brother, Wally, who books tribute bands: “[he] resembled an old Patrick Swayze photo. The sleeves of his pastel-colored blazer were shoved up to his mid-forearm, and his hair was blown dry like that nut from A Flock of Seagulls.” Was that fun for you, weaving in your opinions on all sorts of bands?
A. Oh, hell, yeah … I played in bands for 14 years as my job – and that included all kinds of music. The Flock of Seagulls guy WAS ridiculous – but I had a bright red mullet and WISHED my hair looked like the Seagull dude. The major bad guy in the book, Rooney Coogan, is a former Southern rock star. There are some amazing Southern rock acts, but the excesses and cliches of the form are pretty hilarious. And the black metal band from Scandinavia whose rider demanded they must be allowed to burn a local church: there are Norwegian black metal bands that DID burn churches. All I had to invent was that it’d be in their contract. An associate once shared with me the contents of a backstage rider for a major hip-hop star. It was beyond indulgent. Getting a church-burn clause is child’s play next to the demands I saw.
Q. At one point, Polly and Finn are invited to a red carpet gala at the casino, where the onlookers fawn over such faux celebrities as a soap opera star and a football player; but when the winner of the Man Booker Prize shows up, the audience heckles him and starts throwing things. Is there any hope for our culture?
A. Nope. I’ve attended numerous “red carpet” events in the course of my job. I love them for their sheer uselessness. I can’t imagine why anyone would giddily wait for hours to watch a Kardashian sister walk down a carpet. The idea occurred to me, though, as I was doing just that a few years ago. I was waiting for the next celebrity and I fantasized: how freakin’ great would it be if Gabriel García Márquez were to come along between the aging New Kid on the Block and the celebrity chef? At best, no one would know who Márquez was; at worst, though, the fans would resent him for taking up valuable time before the Barefoot Contessa or whoever came out. I could see violence ensuing.
Q. The book really does demand something of its readers, in that you have to be able to follow the cultural references, some contemporary, some dating as far back as the Hardy Boys. How would you describe your ideal reader?
A. The literary guideposts for “Cold One” are Dan Jenkins, Tim Dorsey, Elmore Leonard and, the master: John Kennedy Toole in “A Confederacy of Dunces.” I would never presume to put myself in their company, but they write or wrote screamingly funny novels about how ridiculous the world is. Each can be scathing – but at the same time you sense they each have a bit of giddy appreciation for the lunacy of it all. If someone enjoys reading their work, and thinks laughter is a fine prism through which to view society, I think that would be my ideal reader. As for Joe and Frank Hardy, they represent my first love affair with books. Any friend of the Hardy books is a friend of mine. Not the TV show, though.
Q. What’s next for you? (Or maybe I should say, How can you top this?) Is there any possibility of a reprise of Kip the P.I.?
A. Knock on wood. We’ll see how sales go for “Cold One,” but, yes, there have been discussions with my agent and editor about a new Kip Quigley adventure.