L. on Wheels

On an eight-day road trip with Larry L. King, the crotchety West Texan who wrote some of the greatest magazine stories of all time, only one thing was certain: I never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next.

A note from the Texanist: 
The Texanist was saddened by the news this morning of the passing of one his idols, writer Larry L. King, who died in Washington, D.C., last night at the age of 83. Back in 2005, yours truly and friend and colleague John Spong had the very unique pleasure of driving Mr. King halfway across America, from his home in Washington all the way to Austin. In the masterfully-penned story that follows, you will learn a little bit about that trip and whole lot about that man, the Texanist’s idol, Larry L. King. May he rest in peace.

Appreciating the writer Larry L. King is no chore, unless of course you’re easily offended. Or overly judgmental. Or constitutionally genteel, hyperpious, or self-consciously intellectual, i.e., you have outgrown your britches, as Larry might put it. On the other hand, you can be defined by any and all of these traits and still come to love him, so long as you have a sense of humor.

Ol’ Carl Bernstein still calls me Trick F-er,” said the 76-year-old Larry as the two of us drove up Interstate 66 into Virginia, finally entering the homestretch of a good old-fashioned eight-day, cross-country car trip. He was referring to a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter with whom I was familiar and a shorthand descriptive with which I most certainly was not.

Excuse me?” I said, turning down Willie Nelson on the CD player.

A bunch of the regulars were sitting around Elaine’s one night,” he explained, referring to the Manhattan bar that had been the late-sixties, early-seventies home to a generation of American writers and the literary tourists—movie stars, musicians, college newspaper editors, magazine subscribers—who stopped in to be near them, “and this old English woman came in and took an intense dislike to me right off the bat. I don’t know if it was my jeans or my manner, but it was immediate and it was intense.”

You could say Larry had slipped into character, except for the implication that he had ever slipped out. He is, as he always has been, a populist troubadour, presenting first the swagger of a foul-mouthed oil-field roustabout, then sneaking in revelation of one of life’s more significant truths. Be wary, though, that you don’t get hung up on the bluster; you’ll end up missing the moral of his story. But worse, don’t let him sense an inability to recognize insight delivered in a West Texas dust bowl drawl. He’ll cut the lesson short and you off at the knees.

So she said, ‘What do you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a writer, and I teach a class at Princeton University.’ She kind of scoffed and asked, ‘What, pray tell, do you teach?’ And I said, ‘Trick f—ing.’ That shut her up.” End of story.

Full disclosure: Larry L. King is one of my heroes. He has been for six years now, since my friend Dave Courtney and I were commissioned to chauffeur him from his wife’s parents’ place, near Georgetown, to an event in Austin where he would be reading from a book of his collected letters. He’d been kind enough not to mention the fact that we were an hour late to pick him up, presumably because he was so happy to leave a house where he couldn’t indulge his passion for menthol cigarettes. Without a word, he lit up a Kool before we were out of the driveway, then embarked on a monologue that lasted the whole 45-minute drive. Through it we learned that his first meeting with “the Reverend Bud Shrake,” as he insisted on calling the Austin novelist who’s been his best friend for forty years, ended with the pair of them yanking books from the shelves in Larry’s Washington, D.C., apartment in desperate search of a missing bag of weed; that Mississippi man of letters Willie Morris knew no greater pleasure than to order MoonPies and clabber at New York’s finest restaurants; that at a Nashville book fair, sportswriter Dan Jenkins once told a best-selling Christian writer that if he had known religious books would sell so well, he would have named his classic (and groundbreakingly profane) football novel “Semi-God”; that to an old yellow dog like Larry, the term “reactionary” is synonymous with “Republican” (and neither is complimentary); and that he, Larry, had

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