Picks and Pans Review: Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye

updated 05/22/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 01:00AM

by Florence King

To say that Florence King doesn't suffer fools gladly is an understatement akin to suggesting that Fred Astaire could maneuver quite nicely on the dance floor. As a matter of fact, from the evidence of this book, one swiftly concludes that King doesn't really suffer anyone gladly. A partial list, only a partial list, of those disdained includes children, teachers, many men and women, politicians, social workers, a considerable number of feminists and John Updike, whose style King describes as "an exquisite blend of Melville and Austen: reading him is like cutting through whale blubber with embroidery scissors." King doesn't approve of—again, a partial list—organ transplants, democracy, junk mail, sloth and what she refers to as "nice guyism." When King is funny, she is very funny. When she's on target, she's dead on target. That's the good news. But in far too many pieces in this collection, King is misanthropic, misogynistic and mean to no good purpose. She notes that "men can become terrorists and practice an updated version of the chivalric 'women and children first' by releasing their female captives immediately—an extremely wise move for anyone wishing to practice terrorism in peace and quiet." When not being mean, King is trying oh, so hard to be meaningful; too often however she is merely meandering. In an essay about the problems with American education, she devotes nearly five pages to a synopsis of Racine's Phèdre. By far the best pieces in the collection are the first-person essays and those imbued with palpable indignation. There is vitality to the vitriol in "Spinsterhood is Powerful." "Have you ever noticed," writes the old-maid-and-proud-of-it King, "that there are no old maids in Correctol and Ex-Lax commercials? They beam the message that women are three times more likely than men to suffer from constipation, yet the sufferers portrayed in these minidramas are always matrons and their married daughters, who discuss the problem and conclude that it comes from 'doing so much for others'—an unconscious gem of truth-in-advertising hinting that marriage and motherhood are the ties that bind." The lapses in the collection are almost made up for by "Land of Hopefully and Glory," a parody of Gone with the Wind, and "Sex and the Saxon Churl," King's account of the travails attendant on writing a romance novel set in the fifth century: "The genre I was in called for that incorrect, but widespread definition of a plot known as 'a lot happens.' In keeping with the typical sweet savage, mine was a sadomasochistic daisy chain of incidents based on the popular wisdom of the hour: 'When in doubt, rape.' " (St. Martin's, $15.95).

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