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A Will Rogers for the Late ‘80s : REFLECTIONS IN A JAUNDICED EYE <i> by Florence King (St. Martin’s Press: $15.95; 198 pp.) </i>

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Not everyone will agree with Florence King’s assessments of America and the American way of life, but few readers will remain unaffected by her insouciant wit, even if it is true, as she claims, that “wit has never played well in America.” How can one suppress a chuckle when one reads:

“I went home, mixed a martini, and turned on the television. Three commercials in a row assured me that Eastern Air Lines, Allied Van Lines and Ex-Lax--movers and shakers all--were my friends. Moreover, Ex-Lax was my family friend because it’s gentle.”

King continues in her firm but gentle way to point out that “the phrase ‘gentle laxative’ is oxymoronic to the sane mind.” In America, she writes, “the need to be nice is so consuming that nobody would dare take a laxative that makes you run up the stairs two at a time, pushing others aside and yelling ‘Get out of the way!’ ”

Until I received a review copy of “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye,” I was unfamiliar with King and her earlier books, “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.” Publishers of the present volume claim that, “both books have delighted hundreds of thousands of readers and won King a reputation as a wit to be reckoned with, and as a writer of style and power.” Generally one should accept a publisher’s blurb with several pinches of salt, but in this instance, I trust their claim. And however many readers she has, they will all be delighted with this new offering.

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King’s chapter headings--"Spinsterhood Is Powerful”; “From Captain Marvel to Captain Valium”; “Sex and the Saxon Churl”; “Phallus in Wonderland,” and “Deja Views,” to cite a few--are as intriguing as they are satirical. My favorite, however, is “Democrazy.” It is amazing how by simply replacing one letter, this much misunderstood and elusive word becomes so appropriate in characterizing the American political experience, or, as some would claim, the American kaleidoscope. King did not coin the expression. Ironically, it was used in 1946 at the Japanese War Trials by Shumei Okawa, a former propaganda minister of Japan.

As King rightly comments, “We get democrazier by the minute.” How else can one characterize such passionate and undemocratic discrimination against smokers, against women who want to decide what to do with their unborn babies, or against AIDS victims (even the unwitting ones)? “If you want to watch Americans throw democracy and equality to the winds and enshrine them at one and the same time,” writes King, “get tapped for jury duty and listen while one side eliminates Catholics who went to college and the other side eliminates Protestants who went to high school, until there’s nobody left but 12 people incapable of understanding the case. That’s the jury.”

Although King appears on the surface to be a humorist, it would be a mistake to consider her social commentary lightweight. She is seriously concerned about such matters as the emasculation of the American male and the feminization of the nation as a whole. Her advice to her fellow women: “It’s time for American women to stop wailing ‘He never talks to me!’ and let men be men, instead of fashioning dross out of gold and calling it ‘humanized.’ ” While some feminists may ignore this piece of wisdom, surely everyone will admit that “self-help books are making life downright unsafe.” And who can doubt that “America is not a democracy, it’s an absolute monarchy ruled by King Kid”? “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye” is replete with such delectable one-liners.

If Will Rogers, that quintessential American nice guy, were alive today, watching television commercials, reading self-help books, being seated in the few remaining smoking sections, would his benign eye not have grown a bit jaundiced? I think so. And I urge those unfamiliar with Florence King’s jaundiced eye to sacrifice a few hours with the idiot box and read her book. More than any of her male competitors, she is the Will Rogers of our day.

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