The Virginian-Pilot
                            THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT  
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, March 12, 1995                 TAG: 9503110203
TYPE: Book Review
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   74 lines




St. Martin's Press. 417 pp. $23.95.

REVIEWING a good anthology like The Florence King Reader in a limited space requires one to cut to the chase. Here is the chase: Florence King is an outstanding writer. Her fiction shows perfect pitch for humor, from high comedy to farce, but she is never distracted from her workmanlike attention to character and plot development. Her essays are well-constructed, razor-sharp attacks on liberalism, feminism and political correctness. She also has a flair for vulgarity, which explains why you should not give this book to your mother for Mother's Day.

The Florence King Reader begins inauspiciously with a horribly self-conscious introduction by King's young whelp of an editor. Skip it and move immediately to excerpts from her early works, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, Wasp, Where is Thy Sting? and He: An Irreverent Look at the American Male. King is decidedly a Southern writer (a Virginian in fact), and like most Southern women born before 1940, she has a keen eye for men - their studied indifference to complexity, their vanity and their surprising effectiveness at getting things done. King's women prove to be harder targets. Grist more for farce than high comedy, they are likely to throw fits, break gun cabinets with fire pokers or burn down the house.

In the novel When Sisterhood Was in Flower, King finds the confidence to take on the complicated task of satirizing women. The book, which is reproduced in full, is a classic ``road'' novel. Set in the 1960s, it carries a cynical, dissipated Southern writer from Boston to California in the company of a feminist WASP do-gooder who has elected to convert the family estate to a commune for women. Along the way they pick up a battered wife who has run away with the 61,345 Raleigh cigarette coupons amassed by her survivalist husband and a spaced-out medieval atavist who speaks in Chaucerian English, sings bawdy ballads and pays her way by breaking into sanitary-napkin dispensers in restrooms.

It is a mark of King's craftsmanship that everything and everyone advance the plot. She avoids the temptation of bringing on characters and situations simply to skewer them. All of her devices work to knit together the complex relationships among women. Unlike men, they absorb myths and values from one another even when their temperaments and outlooks on life are worlds apart. Like Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, King's women defy fear and common sense to undertake breathtakingly improbable enterprises; even a bad idea from a friend demands respect and execution.

After brief excerpts from King's memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, the anthology concludes with recent essays and book reviews in which she shows herself to be a master of the cynical aphorism. In her view, political feminists have sapped the strength of both sexes, ``especially if they went to law school, where normal, intelligent women without speech defects are turned into rolling balls of tangled wool.'' Political correctness is repeatedly brought to task, as in her account of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala's tenure at the University of Wisconsin, where she imposed a strict ban on insensitive remarks on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.

``She forgot `personal appearance,' '' King notes, ``but then she's such a humanitarian that she never thinks of herself. (Oh, Lord, stop me from being catty, but not yet.)''

Whatever one thinks of King's politics, one has to admire her willingness to lead with her chin. In today's hypersensitive world, she remarks, ``the only way to say what you really think is to speak into an open mike and then apologize for not knowing it was open.''

- MEMO: Ross C. Reeves is a corporate attorney in Norfolk. by CNB