BETTY J. COTTER, Special to the Day
If "Poppin' a Cold One" were a TV show or movie, it would come with one of those parental guidance warnings: Adult situations. Nudity. Violence. Except there's no category that comes even remotely close to explaining what this book is about.
"Poppin' a Cold One," Rick Koster's new ebook published by Kensington, is not about the Sierra Nevadas or Dixies the characters favor. The title is a sly reference to the aberrant behavior that's the center of this mock-horror mystery: necrophilia. And lest you think Koster has tried to outdo Thomas Harris, creator of the flesh-eating Hannibal Lector, in the taboo-breaking department, consider this: This is necrophilia horror that's riotously funny.
Now layer in Koster's wry social commentary - which readers of The Day should be quite familiar with, since he's been an arts writer here since 1997 - and you get a comic romp full of asides about music, politics, literature and the sad state of our reality TV culture.
The story, which is a mystery of sorts, revolves around an embalmer who's making "Necro-Flix"; a private detective from New Orleans with a penchant for creative violence; a casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast run by a former singer from a Southern rock band; and a newcomer to the funeral home business with a conveniently hot girlfriend.
What sort of mind thinks up this stuff? We tried our best to find out. Here's a shortened version of a recent e-mail interview. Koster will discuss his book next week at the Groton Public Library.
Q: In reading this book, I simultaneously thought it was 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 important, 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 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 ?
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 wild tangents 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 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 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.
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: ? 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: There are 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.
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.
Betty J. Cotter teaches English and journalism at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and the University of Rhode Island. Her latest novel, "The Winters," was released this summer.