Tory! Tory! Tory!
Praise for Florence Kings Masterpiece
Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady
and a Brief Lament
by Bob Odom
Like American cars, American misanthropy does not age well.
After a few warm-up books in the 1970s, Florence King in 1985 came out with a volume of
autobiography, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. On the ten-best comic novels
list of any reader with at least a half-functioning sense of humor, Southern Lady
would have to rank near the top. Its the rare page that wont have you laughing
out loud. And beware the occasional series of pages that may produce guffaws, tears, and
loss of bodily equilibrium.
Yes. Its that good, good enough that it can withstand my saying its that
good. Aperçus, mots, aphorisms litter Kings carefully crafted pages.
One-liners the equal of Wilde and which are already entering the culture. Such as:
"No matter which
sex I went to bed with, I never smoked
on the street."
schizophrenia begins at home."
"There is no
such thing as a fallen woman; when she steps
out of her place, she always steps up."
Now and then King halts the action and favors us with brief remarks on important
elements of the Southern ladys behavior:
"Silver is the Southern womans proudest possession and highest priority
as well as the subject of much of her conversation. The night before her daughters
wedding, a Southern mother will sit on the bed and talk intimately about silver. Every
decent woman goes to her husband with twelve "covers," and if the knives have
hollow handles hell be running with other women before the year is out, you wait and
see. No man respects a woman with hollow handles."
Well-crafted sentences, careful choice of words, and dead-on sense of timing. Comic
writing doesnt get any better.
Like all autobiographies this one too is a well-crafted fiction as we watch Florence
grow up in her "shabby genteel" Tidewater Virginia family consisting of Granny
(who originally came into the household "for a while" and wound up staying 30
years), Florences mother (who "turns the air blue" whenever she opens her
mouth), and her father, a ne-er-do-well English jazz musician. Granny, having failed
completely in molding her daughter into a Southern Lady, focuses now on her headstrong
granddaughter. Its the cross-generation, cross-cultural tension that, filtered
through Florences dead-on reproduction of tribal mores, gives the book its energy
and endless humor.
You can do much worse than to stop here, buy and read the book. In spite of your aching
sides, you will then re-read it, and you will buy additional copies to give to friends.
Why stop here? Because now we come to the "but".
Yes, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is one of the handful of great comic
Certainly one of the odder attributes of homo sapiens is our ability to form tribes
whose behavioral norms are so different from tribe to tribe that we might as well be
different species. To accomplish what King accomplished in "Failed" requires a
tribal wall that is impermeable to the incessant suffering of 98% of our other tribes. I
suppose what disturbs me most is her lack of awareness, for all her intelligence, of the
price one pays for such an accomplishment.
Jump ahead a decade from the appearance of her masterpiece and we find Ms. King writing
a column for William Buckleys National Review. Our brilliant misanthropic
lesbian skewerer of pretension has thrown herself into the arms of the privileged class
and become that which she once most feared becoming: a Southern lady who just happens to
be able to construct perfect and often very funny English sentences.
For all of Kings barbed wit, she has become so genteel that even her grammar has
perfect manners. Amidst the barbaric brambles of rampant Republicanism, her syntax slides
from one period to the next as effortlessly and magically as Scarlett glided down those
red-carpeted stairs at Tara.
But the perfectly turned put-down has, like potato salad left out, turned. Those
bulls-eye darts of Failed Southern Lady have become the self-inflected and
relentless arrows of an androgynous masochistic Saint Sebastian shooting herself again and
I'm reminded of Van Cliburn. After the fire and ice of the
Tchikovsky-Competition-winning performances, he continued to play with the same finely
turned phrases, the lovely long melodic lines, the hammering octave runs, but utterly
without heart. He wound up hobnobbing with the likes of Kissinger and dancing with Imelda
Marcos, and the world and the music and the art be damned. So too with King and the
Whatever her intended target these days, her burgeoning vitriol spoils her aim and she
winds up shooting only herself, and in the foot at that.
Florence King apparently has fallen victim to the greatest danger of early successful
misanthropy. Like Mencken and even Twain and Swift, the jaundiced eye that remains
jaundiced eventually becomes myopic.
If the successful but aging misanthrope glimpses suffering at all in the masses, it
only provides further proof for the rightness of her distanced stance. The myopia becomes
so severe that even goodness itself disappears from her perceived world.
But maybe Im gullibly misreading her late career. Could the National Review
columns be a guerrilla action, an infiltration of the very heart of the enemy empire to
slowly and wittily help the richly misguided see the error of their oh-so-mannerly ways?
Florence King, Army Rangerette, subversively bringing truth and light to the truly
benighted? However much I want to believe, I dont. (The National Review
maintains an archive of the columns; go read some and decide for yourself.)
Someone once asked King, "Why do you hate people?" To which she replied,
"Who else is there?"
This is of course Scrooge without hope. Humbug without Tiny Tim. Which, to the
practiced and practicing misanthrope, is as it should be. The world is a place of bleak,
selfish, pointless suffering. Reading the saddening, bereft columns in the National
Review one comes away feeling that one has just encountered Hobbes in modern-day,
well, Southern Lady dress, scanning a world that is indeed bloody in tooth and claw. Only
fools dream of happiness. The most you can hope for is respite behind the prophylactic
protection of money and the monied classes.
Like those stunted, warped trees in Big Sur, cruelly shaped by incessant Pacific winds,
its a not a pretty sight, this business of a misanthrope at the end of her tether.
Still, for all that acid, amid the ruin and destruction, the bitterness, the fear, the
anger, there is that book that a younger King managed. Maybe the rest doesnt matter,
or at least doesnt matter much.
Certainly Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady will continue to speak and help
those to laugh who above all need to laugh. Perhaps it is the greater worlds gentle
revenge on the misanthrope that her book will not only bring laughter to those in the
future who are in pain but will also help them to becomesuch irony, Ms.
Consider, in closing, this anecdote posted by one female reader and admirer who spotted
another reader of the pink-jacketed Southern Lady:
"Once in San Francisco, as I commuted on the sardine-packed public transit
through the financial district, I could hear, emerging from the masses in the rear, a
periodic cackle, then a howl, another cackle, a rolling roar... By the time I made my way
to the rear as the suits exited, I came upon a 40 year-old-ish flaming San Francisco Queen
who sat clutching the beloved pink treasure, tears rolling down his face... Well, as you
can ! imagine, I was so excited...I asked him where he was from...
"Mississippi!!!" he responded ... "Arkansas!!!" I cried and we
clutched hands and jumped up and down with a devilish shared knowing... one failed
Southern Lady to another."