Make no mistake about it -- Larry L. King knows how to write. Whether his subject is politics or country music, his locale New York, Texas, Washington or Las Vegas, King can weave together words, phrases and ideas to engross, touch, titillate or outrage the reader. I became a King fan some years ago when I first read his superb account in Harper's magazine of the race in the House of Representatives for majority leader between Mo Udall, Hale Boggs and others. While it was his political writing that first captured my attention, it didn't take me long to realize that a Larry King essay reads well, whatever the subject. So I have tried to follow his literary trail ever since, tracking through streams of magazines and newspapers from Playboy and Esquire to The Washington Post.
The search has been made easier with the publication of his new book-length collection, "Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians and Other Artists." Like its predecessor, "The Old Man and Lesser Mortals," this new book is a grab bag (the title indicates the difficulty of finding themes). The pieces range in length and focus from full-blown magazine articles to punchy editorial-page columns. There are profiles, personal reminiscences, morality tales and analytical essays. It is hard to develop a rhythm of concentration reading this collection. But the pieces somehow do all manage to hang together, holding at least the common thread of the King persona.
The King persona is many things, but most of all it is Texas. Many of his articles are about Texas of Texans, or take place in Texas. These include some essays of intimate personal history, treatises on horse-trading and redneck philosophy and behavior, a profile of country musician David Alan Coe, a hilarious account of a King encourter with a Willie Nelson concert in Austin, a subjective report of the John Connally milk fund bribery trial, and, most notably of all, a story about "the best little whorehouse in Texas," which King has transformed into a Broadway musical and big-time success.
Here is how "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" begins: "It was as nice a little whorehouse as you ever saw. It sat in a green Texas glade, white-shuttered and tidy, surrounded by leafy oak trees and a few slim renegade pines and the kind of pure, clean air the menthol-cigarette people advertise.
"If you had country values in you and happened to stumble upon it, likely you would nod approval and think, Yes, yes, these folks keep their barn painted and their fences up, and probably they'd do to ride the river with. There was a small vegetable garden and a watermelon patch, neither lacking care. A good stand of corn, mottled now by bruise-colored blotches and dried to parchment by hot, husky-whispering summer winds, had no one to hear its rustling secrets."
King's ear for dialogue -- Texas dialogue -- is stunning. You can read these stories and feel transported to Austin or Amarillo. His feel for politics is no less acute. King originally left Texas to work on Capitol Hill for a Lone Star congressman. More than most Hill reporters, he has a true feel for the people in Congress -- their egos, desires, conflicting pressures and pretenses. When he writes of congressional corruption of hypocrisy, he does not affect the phony supermoralistic tone that is the norm these days among political journalists. His stories ring true.
None of King's writing is reporting per se. In stories where he is recounting events or describing people, King uses a personal kind of journalism. His biases, background and experiences take precedence. This is sometimes overdone, sometimes overbearing and egocentric. But unlike the excessive frenzy of Hunter Thompson or the smugness of Tom Wolfe, King's style has an earthy authenticity that enhances his work. Viewing through the King prism helps one to feel as well as understand. We forgive him his subjectivity -- even as we hope that his theatrical successes will not delay any future collections of his writing.