Larry L. King: A Writer’s Life in Letters, or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye.
Okay, so Larry L. King, the pride of Putnam, won interplanetary fame for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and for myriad excursions into belles-lettres during the golden days he worked for Willie Morris at Harper’s.
But what has he done lately that’s worth another dollop of fame?
This collection of his letters will do. Some were written as recently as this year, some are as ancient as the sixties. As one should expect from letters prompted by such different occasions and impulses, they are pretty varied in the way they appeal to and hold the interest of an outsider (meaning me). Looked at individually, I would rate no more than 10 percent of the letters as truly memorable. Another 60 percent are “full of mischief, raw jokes, fun and wild exaggerations” (to adopt King’s appraisal), good as biographical detritus, and that should be enough to excuse keeping them around. The rest — yes, yes, this is just my opinion — are disposable. That’s judging them individually. Later, I’ll say something about judging them as a whole.
Of course, King being King, most of the letters are imbued with humor — not ha-ha humor but the humor that comes from a worldly-wise (which King is) good ol’ country boy (which King has not been, except perhaps in spirit, for nearly half a century) who views the world in a wickedly accurate and gleefully profane way.
In the top 10 percent of King’s letters, the premier example of his humor is his 1970 epistle to Odessa attorney Warren Burnett, describing what might be called the out-of-body experience of writer William Styron at a Neiman Fellowship get-together in Cambridge. King was very much in attendance, and he records that evening with the kind of attention to bizarre details worthy of a collaboration between Robert Benchley and Mark Twain. The letter is constructed so perfectly that you can no more imagine the whole from an excerpt than you can imagine the pyramid of Giza from one building block.
But I’ll give you this much:
…Brother Styron relaxed himself with numerous drinks over a period of some hours, at the conclusion of which he somehow got a-holt of a bit of Mexican boo-smoke. Shortly (maybe 3 in the a.m.) he describes himself as feeling peculiar. He flops on the couch and bespeaks of death. He commences quoting poetry. He falls on the floor and his wife cradles his head in her arms, and they speak passages to one another of what I think was Shakespeare.
Whereupon Styron bolts upright, proclaims with a wild gleam that he can “see the other shore” and rushes off towards the outdoors, where the temperature is then around zero degrees, without no coat on — possibly to shake the hand of Jesus, who knows?
And so they proceeded through night and morning, in a mental fog, passing through the hands of unwilling bellhops, suspicious cops, and disgusted doctors until…. Well, that’s the sort of thanks Harvard got for giving King temporary succor.
That letter begins on page 172. Another example from the same premier class, only six pages later, is a letter that deserves long life for just four paragraphs. They record, unforgettably, the lunatic moments of a trip through West Texas with elderly relatives, and a visit with the writer H. Alan Smith.
King finds the old humorist “two months drunk out of his mind,” but the visit progresses nicely for the first two wet hours, with Smith heaping praise on King as the beaconlight of young writers. Then, “in a given moment, his eyes glazed more than normally” and Smith began to shout, “‘You long-haired bearded communist cock sucker, what makes you think you can write books?’ To which I responded, ‘Only the endorsement of such great men as you,’ whereupon his wife leapt in horror to apologize and send him off to bed and beg that I return when he is feeling better.’ In a pig’s eye, I mumbled….”
But the top 10 percent also include serious letters that are so humane (I might have said compassionate, but George W. has ruined that word) and candidly self-appraising and savvy that you will understand how King managed to make, and keep, so many friends (judging from the roll call in these letters).
In 1968 he gave his old pal Bill Brammer a rousing peptalk. Since the much celebrated publication of his novel The Gay Place, Brammer had been wholly unproductive; apparently his juices were frozen. He had recently written to King, saying he couldn’t understand why writing had become “just so murderously hard for me in recent years — unaccountably so — though my skull feels livelier than ever,” adding that it “really pains me to recollect how much I once enjoyed — and gushed nearly to a fault -writing down words on paper.”
After stroking Brammer with the assurance that he could write rings around everyone else in “The Texas School” except maybe Larry McMurtry, King said he knew what Brammer was going through because he himself was beginning to feel that the “word struggle isn’t as much fun as it once was.” But, King added, all of Brammer’s talent was “so much shit unless you work, Billie Lee. Forget it being ?fun’ and face work for a while. Do you think it is any particular joy to pound out crap as I do for True, Cosmopolitan, Sat. Eve. Post and so forth, on subjects I do not give a shat [sic] about? No, but it is necessary to support myself so that I can keep my name in the game and learn my craft and maybe live to do better writing than I am capable of doing now and that goddammit is important to a writer. It’s the most important thing of all.”
And how could Brammer stop being dead in the water? King had a good idea: “Let me suggest this way of starting to come back: begin by writing a few Texas Observer pieces: forget the money at first; you might coax them out of a few token dollars (I do) but more importantly you would start coming back in print, learning the work habits again, then maybe even to discover a flash of fun in it again but if you do not, then fuck it, for what I most want you to discover again is your pride again and yourself again.”
Being practical and knowing Brammer’s recent habits, King suggested that among the pieces he could write was “one on the dope movement.”
Sweet advice, but of course Brammer didn’t take it. Still, they kept in touch, King sometimes chipping in bail money to get Brammer out of jail. And in 1995, when Bud Shrake wrote King about how fans and family met at Scholz Garden to celebrate the University of Texas’ new edition of The Gay Place, King’s saucy nostalgia for the Brammer Era comes through in his reply:
Wish I could have attended the Billie Lee Brammer Memorial Beer Drink, though it probably would have been depressing to see how old my youthful companions have become and how badly their faces and bodies wear the years. Thank God a lifetime of clean living spared me and you from time’s ravages. Most of them others look like shit. I would have loved to see the extent of the maneuvering twixt Mrs. Brammer 1 and Mrs. Brammer 2 — Nadine and Dorothy — or was there any? That was always a pretty democratic and forgiving bunch when it came to folks bedding others down and falling temporarily in love and what not.
I swan, as Mama said, who’d of thought back yonder in ’61 that The Gay Place would still be celebrated in 19-and-95 and already has lasted 17 years past Billie Lee’s being bugled to Jesus? Ol’ Billie Lee got a lot of mileage outta writin’ just one book. If he had wrote two books, he might be celebrated until Jesus comes back.
Memories of The Gay Place must not have been entirely happy ones for King. When he brought out his first novel, The One-Eyed Man, in 1966, some critics razzed it as altogether too imitative of The Gay Place. The first review, in Book Week, described it as “a static, often pretentious, and derivative assemblage of clichés which at times reads as if Mr. King were parodying Robert Penn Warren and even Brammer himself.” The reviewer credits King with putting one good speech in his fictional governor’s mouth, but he adds, “To get to this tough, moving message the reader must be prepared to wade through far too many swamps of local color, hoked-up dialogue and bargain sentiment.” (Let me interrupt this dramatic moment to say that, despite its rough launching, the book ultimately had decent sales.)
And how did King take it? He wrote his cousin Lanvil Gilbert that the review left him “Numb and horrified…. Humiliated…. Physically ill. Truly, gagging physically ill.” But almost at once he’s up again and swinging, beating down the criticism as stupid and elitist: “Clichés? Too many swamps of local color, hoked-up dialogue and bargain sentiment? Well, politics in the South is a matter of local color, hoked-up dialogue, bargain sentiment. Witness Pappy O’Daniel, John Connally, Lurleen Wallace; a million, billion more. Had I not lived through much of this book in actual experience? Yes, so is not cliché another word maybe for ‘truth’ — for ‘the way it is’?”
Not a bad rebuttal, but as King realized then and on other unhappy occasions, after the critics and/or the public have spoken, it’s too late to talk back. Critics loved his book Confessions of a White Racist (nominated for a National Book Award) but the public was uninterested. His play The Night Hank Williams Died won the Helen Hayes Award, but the public stayed away in droves and the play’s backers, mostly King’s friends, lost $300,000.
The failure that came closest to crushing him was the quick demise in 1994 of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, the sequel to the fabulously successful Whorehouse I. For four years King had polished and re-polished the sequel’s book. He had worked his tail off rounding up the actors from Whorehouse I to go into the trenches again. He had helped talk MCA/Universal into capitalizing the $7 million show. But the result was Titanic II.
New York’s theater critics loathed it. Some of the kinder appraisals after opening night were “a jerry-built book”…. “much of the humor may have been gathered from comedy writers’ wastebaskets”…. “a curiosity wrapped in a clich?”…. “idiotic … pretentious.” One New York Times headline: “Oh, Brothel! This Is Awful!” And three days after the opening a Times columnist called Whorehouse II “the most universally reviled Broadway show in memory.”
Perhaps the only good thing that came out of it was King’s letter to his cousin reviewing the debacle. After “Hoo Boy! Let the record show that on May 10th I opened The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public and Willie Nelson got busted for pot. Willie got better press than I did, so apparently my crime was the larger.” The letter expands as an absolutely fascinating look into the psyche of a first-rate writer as he agonizes over how such a massive failure came about.
While not letting himself entirely off the hook, King offers a number of explanations, the most interesting to me being his disgust with the conduct of “the reigning Broadway King, Tommy Tune” who “has been very good, in the past, at hiding his dictatorial chickenshittery behind a sweet-guy public façade,” but this time did certain things to the show that were disastrous and helped turn the critics into a lynch mob.
If I occasionally say something nice about King and his work, do not think he’s getting a puff job from an old buddy. The man is a stranger, and so far as I know, we have only three things in common: (1) early employment on the kooky Hoiles newspapers, but 1,500 miles apart; (2) later employment under Willie Morris, but again 1,500 physical miles apart, and light years apart in success; (3) furious exertion as a freelancer.
It is King the freelancer who gets my greatest admiration. There was a time, stretching over about a dozen years, when I considered myself the most prolific freelance writer in Washington, a delusion arising from the fact that I was too busy to stay aware of what other writers were doing. In fact, King, who was active at the same time (and his range included but went far beyond Washington), was beating me by a dozen country miles. And long after I had run out of steam, King kept turning out tons of good stuff — indeed, some of his best.
And he did it despite, along the way, falling into a couple of very deep ditches — depression from family tragedies and hogshead-quantity alcoholism. But after he realized that the “drink-til-dizzy-or-puking technique” that made all those funky literary parties so much fun was killing him and his talent, he banished booze. Long ago.
He was a dynamo, and knew it. In 1991 he wrote Morris that the thing he remembered most about their time together was “the sense of excitement and of unlimited possibilities. And the energy — God, the energy — that we had. We vibrated with it, shined with it. I couldn’t be still.”
Anyone who has to deal with do-nothing agents and thieving book publishers will be awed by the way King — through threats, flattery, humor, subterfuge, and friendship — got more or less what he wanted from those who managed his life. But I think the thing that mainly shamed publishers into giving him decent (though rarely generous) contracts and publicity tours was that they knew for every dollar they laid out, King would give one hundred dollars in energy. His tours are exhausting even to read about, and sometimes they offered only small rewards — at one book fair he sold only nine books, one of which he paid for himself.
After King had gained a certain amount of fame, I suppose fame itself kept him stoked up. But what kept him going in the early, very lean years as a freelancer? Not the necessities; for those he could have gone back to working as a top congressional aide, which he had been for ten years before he turned to writing full time. What kept him going (as one can fairly judge from these letters) was pride, self-confidence, ego — he had as much of these when he was on the bottom as when he was riding high, and they were always, I surmise, a major source for his strength.
If ego were a deadly virus, some of these pages would be unsafe to touch; and occasionally it gets a bit tiresome. But it’s made easier to put up with because (1) King recognizes his immodesty and frequently jokes about it; (2) he so openly revels in his fame and the opportunities his fame has given him to rub elbows with the famous that one can’t help but share his pleasure; (3) like Muhammad Ali, King deserves to boast (oh, maybe he’s no heavyweight, but he’s certainly champion of one of the heftier colloquial-weight divisions); and (4) again like Ali, boasting is probably just part of King’s act.
And act he does. The typewriter was his stage and he was always strutting and fretting on it (he didn’t buy a computer until last year). It is plain from these letters — and we also learn from Richard Holland’s invaluable commentary holding these letters together — that playwriting is King’s preferred outlet. King says “dialogue comes easily” and one can believe it because many portions of these letters read like dialogue. He loves the feel and sound, the immediate emotional payoff, of the theater audience. “I have never yet caught a stranger in the act of reading one of my books, short stories or magazine essays,” says King. “You write the things, they’re thrown on the market, you get a few fan letters, some reviews and then your works disappear into the literary black hole. It is like a small death.”
Speaking of death, it is in the back of King’s mind these days. Old friends are dying. He fears that he will die before he writes everything he wants to write. Bouts of depression hit him, and Prozac doesn’t always compensate. In one of his dark moods (“goddamned whining,” he calls it), he looked back over his life and wrote recently, “Yes, I have accomplished thirteen books, eight plays, countless magazine articles, have been anthologized, won some awards and had some satisfactory paydays but, somehow, it falls so short of what was intended that to my ears it all rings a little hollow and tinny and dimestore.”
But none of that literary production is what we should be most grateful to him for. What we should be most grateful for brings me back to what these letters, judged as a whole, prove very clearly: Larry L. King — sometimes known to his mother in moments of stress as Weldon or Raymond or Floyd — is a character.
Texas would be just another state if it weren’t for its characters — real characters, colorful, hyper, unruly, maybe a bit odd-ballish, often bigger than life. It used to have them by the dozens in politics and in oil and other indigenous piratical enterprises. Not today. They are rapidly being replaced by faceless corporate mutants. Characters in the word business are also getting mighty scarce in Texas, though you would never guess it from the disproportionately large number you find on this publication’s masthead. King used to be there as a contributing editor. He fit right in.
Robert Sherrill, a former editor of the Observer, keeps an eye on Texas from his home in Florida.