Larry L. King is one of the more prominent "good old boys," a small group of writers who came out of the South in the 1960s and '70s. All of them are male (though of late there have been signs of the emergence of a ladies' auxiliary), most of them grew up in deprived circumstances, and to a man they celebrate the rough virtues of life in the hardscrabble countryside. They write with affection (and sometimes affectation) about stock-car drivers, moonshiners, tall-tale tellers, country music, colorful politicians and their own fathers, inevitably referred to as "my old man." Their work is a peculiar, if by no means unappealing, mixture of Ol' Dixie earthiness and new-journalistic narcissism.
Where King goes all the rest of them a long mile better is that unlike the others, he hit the jackpot. After years as a respected and widely acquainted but impecunious free-lancer, he went into collaboration with some show-biz types and concocted a musical, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which ran for 1,639 performances on Broadway and did incredible things for his bank account; this improbable but gratifying story he told in his previous book, "The Whorehouse Papers."
But for all his success in the theater King remains a free-lance journalist at heart, so it is to the cautionary tale of his career in that field that he turns in "None But a Blockhead." He describes it as a book about the business of writing, one intended "to deal at the nuts-and-bolts level with the working writer's experience in the marketplace." He adds: "In reciting the ups and downs of my own career, I hope to rise slightly above the egomaniacal; my purpose is to show what working writers may encounter -- the triumphs and the setbacks -- and I simply know more of my own story than of the stories of others."
Whether King delivers as he promises is perhaps a matter of the reader's expectations. Certainly there is a great deal in here about King's own experiences, though it is somewhat difficult to imagine how other writers can expect to profit from his accounts of drinking bouts, encounters with well-known writers, quarrels with editors, and political intrigues at Harper's magazine -- to all of which a substantial percentage of the book is devoted. There is also a considerable amount of space devoted to King's private life, the painful aspects of which arouse great sympathy but the detailed accounts of which seem rather at odds with the book's stated purpose.
Which is to say that for the reader whose real interest is Larry King himself rather than a detailed tour of the writing life, "None But a Blockhead" may prove satisfying. But the reader with different expectations is likely to conclude that there's a lot of heat in these pages but not much light -- a lot of self-indulgence, but not much systematic or revealing information about how one gets things done in the free-lance market. The book's subtitle is "On Being a Writer," but it really should be "On Being Larry L. King."
It's an oddly slapdash production into the bargain. For nearly two-thirds of the way it is more or less straightforward autobiography, tracing King's career from its beginnings in rural Texas to its climactic success on the New York stage. This is followed by "Random Jottings From a Writer's Notebook," a curious section that collects bits and pieces King committed to paper over the years; these include his reflections on such matters as literary agents, vanity presses, writing and drinking, and writing for Hollywood -- subjects on which he has intelligent things to say, but nothing that others have not already said elsewhere. Finally, and to my mind inexplicably, he appends "Bits & Pieces," eight previously uncollected fugitive pieces that serve no evident purpose save to pad the book still further.
At one point King writes: "In a hurry to produce that second book, I had too hastily written much of the new stuff but assumed my excesses would be pruned by a loving editorial hand." This one reads as if he had done the same. It has its good and amusing moments, but too much of it seems to have been hurled onto paper and whipped off to the publisher with scarcely a second glance. And beyond that, what does it say about King that he expected an editor to correct his own excesses and sloppiness? Is this the example the would-be writer really wants to follow?