A withering cultural critic takes aim
In Withering Slights: The Bent Pin Collection (National Review Books, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9847650-3-4, 186 pages, $24.95), Florence King demonstrates once again why she remains, even in poor health, one of America’s most biting and genuinely funny social and political critics.
Like Deja Reviews: Florence King All Over Again and Stet, Damnit!: The Misanthrope’s Corner, Withering Slights offers us a collection of writings by King that first appeared in the conservative magazine, National Review. And like these two books and several other volumes, including Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye and Lump It or Leave It, King brings that famous jaundiced eye to the contemporary scene.
Though she has written for more than 25 years for what most politicos would regard as America’s quintessential magazine of the Right, King should appeal to readers across the political spectrum, provided they own a sense of humor. (And let’s face it: many of those immersed in politics these days, whether on the left or the right, are as humorless as dirt). Her sense of the ridiculous and the absurd have brought her readers from across the political spectrum. She was, for example, a frequent correspondent with Christopher Hitchens, the late speaker and columnist and a self-proclaimed Marxist. Their friendship through correspondence began after King reviewed one of his books with the tag “If Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want to be one too.” Derision of idiocies large and small made these two writers literary comrades.
Though she sometimes writes of politics, King is at her best as a cultural critic. Like H.L. Mencken, she fires off volleys at the American herd mentality, but she has plenty of ammunition left over to blast our elites as well. She rails against our infatuation with children, our ignorance of the past, our obsession with youth, our worship of celebrities. She lampoons men and women who weep in public, cars that have become “computers on wheels”, the current state of Hollywood moviemaking, medical practices, big government, and lying politicians (but there — I repeat myself).
Here is King’s take on one of her rare visits to a physician:
They asked me how much I drank and I said, “I don’t know. After I finish writing, I unwind with two or three or four, depending, then when I’m hungry I eat.” The ER doctor quoted only the numbers and added, in that tight-sphinctered medical prose: “Patient admits to doing this heavy drinking for many years.” If doctors worked on newspapers they would know what heavy drinking really is, but they don’t, so officially and for posterity, I am a designated drunk.
My doctor latched on to this, probably weighing addiction specialties. “What do you drink?”
“No, I have Russian wet-nurses.” She asked for a definition. “It’s a vodka and milk highball,” I explained.
“You drink that?”
“Don’t worry, it’s skim milk.”
Throughout her essay collections, King often holds up movies and television as mirrors for our buffoonery. Here in Withering Slights, she uses our entertainment industry both to compare and contrast current events. In the essay “Breakdown,” for example, where she sneers at Ellen DeGeneres for her public and hysterical weeping on a comedy show, King brings up the 1940s Abbott & Costello radio performance when, a few hours before the show was scheduled to start live, Lou Costello learned that his son had drowned. The show wasn’t canceled; the news of his son’s death was withheld until the performance ended; and Costello went on the air with “the same ding-dong hot timing, the same consistent, exquisitely calibrated balance between the two very different personalities, straight man and fall guy, that had inspired a critic to call their ‘Who’s On First?’ routine ‘a work of art.’” The next day, editorialists and commentators heaped praise on Costello for this act, labeling him a “trouper” and a “thoroughbred.” In such a situation today, critics would undoubtedly label him a man with ice in his heart.
In “Her Other Two Opponents,” King examines Hilary Clinton and the election of 2008 by contrasting her candidacy with Bear Grylls in the survivalist show “Man vs. Wild,” where the intrepid Bear enters the wilds of deserts, mountains, and jungles armed with nothing but his two hands “and … well, those other two things.”
During one of these performances, Bear decides to spend a cold evening in the desert in the company of a dead camel. He skins the camel to make a blanket, then cuts open the belly to find extra water. King writes:
“Camels are huge and have lots of entrails — brown, green, purple, yellow, pink, in all shapes and sizes. Bear’s search might strike male viewers as the essence of strength and resourcefulness, but all I could think of were those times when women root through our chaotic handbags babbling, ‘I just know it’s in here someplace.’”
At the end of Withering Slights, Florence King inadvertently reveals that, like Lou Costello, she is a class act, a thoroughbred. After stoically and briefly describing her current physical difficulties, she writes, “my most fervent prayer is ‘Please let me die in the saddle.’ A writer must write. Writing is oxygen; a real writer is driven to write as long as it is mentally and physically possible.”
So here’s to you, Florence King. In that politically incorrect parlance you so often celebrate, you are one tough old broad.
And damned funny, too.