EDITOR’S NOTE: With Cupid up to his annual madness, who better to pick at marital bliss-ters than Florence King, who–in this November 10, 1997, curmudgeonly classic–waged war from behind the sandbags and parapets of “The Misanthrope’s Corner,” lobbing her literary grenades at the Promise Keepers, Southern Division (their ranks filled by countless dried-out good ol’ boys named “Earl,” who torment their wives after climbing on the wagon).
You’ll enjoy this. We promise.
Of course, this column, and all of Miss King’s side-splitting back-page oeuvre for National Review, can be found, and enjoyed, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
I tried to watch the Promise Keepers Washington writhe-in with an open mind, but I didn’t last long. Barely an hour into it, my various reactions settled into the narrow end of my mental funnel and took on a unified familiar shape, until I saw not 700,000 men but one man. The man every Southerner knows, the man no Southerner can avoid, especially in August when the Revival comes to town.
In short I saw Earl, who just got Saved.
Earl gets Saved every August and falls from grace sometime in November in the male-bonding excesses of football or the autumnal batch of hard cider that starts him drinking again, but in the meantime he is everyone’s cross to bear, starting with his wife.
You can spot Earl on sight because the first thing he does after he gets Saved is get cleaned up. Between his new haircut and his lethally close straight-razor shave he’s a red, scraped, pulpy mass from the neck up. Watching him shave, hands still shaking, is his wife’s first endurance test. Normally he uses a throwaway Bic but for his August tonsorial nothing but his granddaddy’s razor will do, and since it’s a Southern razor, there’s a long story behind it. This Earl recites in masochistic detail while he shaves: how Alvin Lee used it to cut Billy Lee “to ribbons” in a fight and then accidentally fell on it and bled to death; how Uncle Clay Lee used it to slit his own throat when the burden of his sins grew too heavy; and how Granddaddy got it back from the sheriff and used it to mark his place in the Good Book as a reminder to go and chase nooky no more.
The second endurance test awaiting Earl’s wife is his fervent pledges of deathless fidelity: “I’ll love you till the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry” is about par. Nor are strangers exempt. Stand next to him in the Piggly-Wiggly line–inevitable, since he has volunteered to do the grocery shopping–and he will point to the six-pack of Bud in your basket and say, “I usta drink that stuff before the Lord stopped me. I tell you, I was so worthless they shoulda stood me up against the wall and shot me. No good! I tell you, I was the no-goodest sinner you ever did see till I went to the altar and turned myself in to Jesus, and He said to me, He said . . .”
Analyzing the psychological effects of Revivalism in the small Southern town where she spent her life, Lillian Smith wrote: “I cannot remember one time when the banker or millowner or principal of the school, or cotton broker or politician went to the altar. They were always among the Saved. Perhaps it is as well–for one little penitent journey might have caused a run on the bank or a cultural panic.”
Earl’s penitent journey has a similar erosive effect on his wife. Listening to his non-stop self-abasement, she begins to wonder: what has he done that she hasn’t already caught him doing? What might he do that she hasn’t yet suspected him of? Can it be that she has underestimated his capacity for ruinous mayhem? A terrible tension is born: when will Earl crack?
She can’t, of course, acknowledge these dark thoughts because she must keep up a happy front as the wife of a Saved man, but she would be happier if he were not quite so Saved. She misses grocery-shopping, and she would just as soon put the dishes away herself instead of finding the turkey platter sitting on top of a tea cup. Truth be told, she agrees with the women in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn who said the ideal husband was a fireman because: “He made good money and wasn’t home much.”
The tension snaps when she goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Used to Earl leaving the seat up, she automatically reached back and lowered it without looking, but this time the newly solicitous Earl had put it back down, and she, half-asleep, realized too late that what she had lowered and sat down on was the lid.
When he woke up and found her mopping the bathroom floor he offered to do it for her, but she screamed at him. Overcome by a powerful thirst, he tore up the kitchen looking for his booze until he remembered that he had poured it all down the sink the day he got Saved. There was nothing in the house to drink except the vanilla extract he had bought at the Piggly-Wiggly. He was on the last bottle and yelling something about nooky when the sheriff arrived.
All right, so I’m a cynic. That’s better than being a desperate idealist like most of my fellow conservative columnists, who let themselves be persuaded that PK’s gospel according to the T-shirt signaled the ultimate victory for family values. When will we learn that religion does not a conservative make, nor atheism a liberal? Like all people driven by emotion, PK could be swung like a lariat; the Right is in trouble if we think that 700,000 weeping men is good news in an era that is already close to rule by hysteria. Whatever happened to our traditional distrust of the mob?
I also reject the view put forth by several gleeful conservative pundits that PK dealt a fatal blow to radical feminism. After three decades of male bashing, what is there to gloat about in the spectacle of 700,000 men curdling with guilt and begging for forgiveness? It sounds like successful brainwashing to me.
Then there is PK’s apples-and-oranges comparison of marital problems and racism. They vow to help their wives, spend time with the kids–and end racism? We’re headed for an all-purpose, automatic agenda. The Home Accessories Catalogue: “Everything you need for kitchen, bath, and ending racism.” “Subscribe to The Model Airplane and learn to build miniature replicas, exchange ideas with other hobbyists, and end racism.” Another triumph for Bill Gates: “Windows ‘95 made your life easier with the Start key. Now Microsoft introduces the Stop Racism key.” On and on it will go, until the humble vacation postcard reads: “The scenery is beautiful, wish you were here to help me end racism.”