It’s 1969; Larry L. King is starting his Nieman year, paying an exorbitant $390 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, and bored with most of the speakers.
“Dear Lanvil,” he writes his cousin back in Texas, “…I find myself often despondent, really dragging my chin, feeling that I am not getting all out of this that I should, asking myself what a 41-year-old fool is doing interrupting his budding career for a year. The answer, on my good days, comes back: ‘Cause you ain’t had no schoolin’ Fool, and ‘cause you so fucking iggernent.’ On bad days, I have no answer. I feel a bit insecure, a bit out of the main stream, and I’m not as well-recognized here as in New York precincts in the matter of Personal Fame, and all this chomps on my Big E Ego.”
King leads a revolt, taking away the role of selecting speakers from Curator Dwight Sargent. One of King’s first invitees is William Styron. In a letter to a friend in Texas, King recounts how Styron ends up in the emergency room after inhaling “a bit of Mexican boo smoke” in King’s apartment.
“Shortly (maybe 3 in the a.m.) he describes himself as feeling peculiar. He flops on the couch and bespeaks of death. He commences quoting poetry. He falls on the floor and his wife cradles his head in her arms, and they speak passages to one another of what I think was Shakespeare.
“Whereupon Styron bolts upright, proclaims with a wild gleam that he can ‘see the other shore’ and rushes off towards the outdoors, where the temperature is then around zero degrees, without no coat on—possibly to shake the hand of Jesus, who knows?”
King’s letters home to Texas are part of an often hilarious, occasionally poignant, sometimes tedious 404-page collection, “Larry L. King: A Writer’s Life in Letters, Or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye.”
King (who wrote “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” not the Larry King of television fame) has written 13 books, eight plays and countless magazine articles. But he says he enjoyed writing nothing so much as letters.
They are irreverent, churlish, boastful, sometimes larger than life, like King himself. They show the passions—fear, hope, anger, joy—of a man who craved writing so much he left his wife and young children, who rose from a struggling freelance writer to national prominence as a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine working for another Southern writer-turned-editor, Willie Morris.
“A Writer’s Life in Letters” includes wonderful storytelling that hints at King’s greatness, but it’s buried in minute details about what he’s writing or how much he’s drinking that only a true fan would appreciate. After plodding through his letters, I wish I’d spent the time instead reading some of King’s earlier works: “The Old Man,” his most famous piece in Harper’s, written after the death of his father; “Confessions of a Racist,” runner-up for the National Book Award, and “Blowing My Mind at Harvard,” a piece he wrote for Harper’s about his Nieman experience.
Elizabeth Leland, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, works as a part-time reporter for The Charlotte Observer and full-time mom to Jack, 5, and Abbie, 3.