Florence King, a/k/a “Fascist Flossie,” “Ku Klux King,” and “the thinking man’s redneck,” is the author of Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, and a number of other books under her own name and several others. She is infamous, in a South full of unreconstructed Confederate spinster ladies, as one of the few unreconstructed Confederate spinster lady monarchists. She is the kind of eccentric that Southern writers have made careers out of describing, the kind of person you could not possibly make up, and among the few American humorists who are actually funny.
In her novel, her autobiography, her several satires, and this her third book of essays Miss King has touched on topics ranging from Lizzie Borden (with whom she identifies) to FDR (the American monarch) to the unreadability of John Updike to the joys of spinsterhood.
The essays in Lump It or Leave It likewise cover a lot of ground, from The Change to higher education to book reviewing. Discussing the Southern honor code of “do right” (as in “You gotta do right, you hear?”) she says that “Do Right is the South’s Eleventh Commandment, a paradigmatic illustration of what the authors of The Lonely Crowd called ‘inner direction.'” She has a funny tale of the aggressive appreciation of two devoted fans who loved her autobiographical Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady so much they stole every Florence King book they could find from a local library. And in “A Burnt Out Book Reviewer Case” she cracks the perfect and perfectly heartless Satanic Verses joke that surely the folks at Waldenbooks wanted to make: “John Dollar is a novel by Marianne Wiggins, who is now in hiding because she is married to Salman Rushdie. Allah be praised.”
Normally book reviews are filler for an essay collection, but reviewing is one of Miss King’s fortes. She shows Joan Didion no more mercy than she showed Wiggins, doing in the novel Play It As It Lays by means of the semiautomatic patter of a drill sergeant at “Camp Jejune”: “‘Play It As It Lays is about a girl named Maria Wyeth whose hometown in Nevada has been turned into a missile range. What’s that a symbol of? Lemme hear it loud and clear!’ ‘SIR! THE ARID LANDSCAPE OF THE SOUL, SIR!'”
Miss King discusses abortion and assault and suggests this solution to the latter problem: “All women should be allowed to; own a gun simply by virtue of being female. A woman who prefers to conceal her gun in a handbag should be given a carry permit with no questions asked. A woman who is willing to wear her gun in a holster on the outermost layer of her clothing should be allowed to do so without having to bother with permits of any kind. In all cases it should be understood that an armed woman not only has a right to defend herself, but a responsibility to come to the aid of other women as well.” Every male friend to whom I’ve read that passage has winced, but you’ve got to hand it to the woman: her brand of she-devilry is consistent, which is more than most feminists can boast.
(Should anyone have missed the point, the cover photo is a nice parody of the famous Ian Fleming picture, with Miss King grinning over the barrel of what I take to be a Walther PPS semiautomatic pistol. Early in Lump It she relates an anecdote about how two young kids in a bad DC neighborhood cased her but finally decided not to mug this “mean lady.” They made the right decision.)
Florence King is an interesting case. She has been extremely frank about her private life, which has been somewhat experimental, and that frankness (along with tales of her former life as a pornographer) has no doubt lost her some readers. But it is also precisely that past of hers—in tandem with her humor—that has given her the public’s indulgence to write books that are often tremendously reactionary. And whereas for so many writers this kind of personal frankness is a poor replacement for originality or wit or intelligence, for Miss King independent-mindedness in one area ties in nicely with independent-mindedness in all other areas. She is worth reading because she is funny. But what is best about her is that she will say what she thinks, and in a country in which free speech does not really exist, fewer and fewer people, especially writers, have the simple guts to indulge themselves in the luxury of speaking their mind. In the richest country in the world plainspokenness is the one thing we cannot afford. Florence King’s grit is her best quality.
[Lump It or Leave It, by Florence King (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 181 pp., $15.95]