Monday, April 09, 2007

Just Read: He by Florence King

I read this mostly on Friday (appropriately, as I was writing my post about how men think about sex), and enjoyed it, but I doubt anyone reading this will ever pick this book up.

I'm a Florence King fan, as I think I've mentioned -- I started with her great With Charity Toward None (a wonderful history of misanthropy) over a decade ago, and have been wandering through the rest of her books ever since. King is one of the world's great curmudgeons, and her most typical books are the ones she wrote in the '80s and '90s. If what I say here interests anyone, find either Charity or The Florence King Reader (a great overview of her work, from St. Martin's around 1997 or so).

This one dates from 1978, and is a bit different than her later work; it's partially King's sexual autobiography and partially her look at the various types of men in her world at the time of writing. The big difference, I think, from her later stuff, is that this one dates from the days before King went through menopause. I get the feeling she always disliked most women, and this book clearly shows that she didn't like men all that much, either. So I believe that, once the one thing she wanted from men was no longer important to her, she could easily turn against the whole human race. (Not that there's anything wrong with that; I'm a curmudgeon myself.)

King was born, I deduce from internal evidence, about 1935, and the early chapters are about her upbringing (mostly by her Southern grandmother and a black maid of the same age and outlook) and about her college years. (She was, by her own accounts, tremendously hot to trot, but had to spend a long time working through the Byzantine '50s social code to even figure out what it was she wanted. This chapter is particularly good on what was allowed while dating then -- the short form, for those of us from later generations, is a hell of a lot more than we've been led to expect, but only in very specific ways at very specific times.)

After that, she spends most of the book anatomizing the different types of men she sees in the mid-'70s (not a good time for any Americans, I'm afraid), and quoting a lot of forgettable popular novels of the previous thirty years for their attitudes on men and women. The review of the literature is the weakest part of the book; aside from James Jones and one or two others, nobody reads any of those writers anymore, so refuting them (or just holding them up to opprobrium) is now pointless.

I should warn contemporary audiences that King is not a feminist, though she herself points out that she always lived alone and supported herself. She's a conservative (of the "every change since I was born has been a bad one" type) and was associated with the magazine National Review, but she doesn't have the stereotyped views of any side.

And I'll have to give her the last word, about her own Southern upbringing: "No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street."

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