Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book #38 - All the King's Men (Robert Penn Warren)

After reading the first paragraph of "All the King's Men" I thought to myself "Man, can this guy write". I mean, check it out:
Mason City. To get there you follow Highway 58 going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you'll try to jerk her back on, but you can't because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you'll try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won't make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky and he'll say, "Lawd God, hit's a-nudder one done done hit!" And the next nigger down the row, he'll say, "Lawd God," and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.
Now that's just damn good writing. The whole paragraph not only tells a tragic story all in one paragraph, but is so evocative of a time and place, in this case the deep south of the 1930s. There were lots of passages in this book where the writing was so good I had to stop and say "Woah", sip some bourbon, and then go back and read the paragraph again, just to savor the words more carefully.

But it's not just the writing, but the story itself which also makes this a great and enjoyable book. When I started this book, I knew it was about a politician similar to Louisiana's Huey Long. Willie Stark is the governor of a southern state, and the book follows his rise from a poor country lawyer to a powerful governor who runs a vicious but effective political machine. The story is told by Jack Burden, a former reporter who goes to work for Willie at the beginning of his political career, and moves up with him as his right hand man. But this novel has so much in it than just the political story of Willie Stark. In fact, the novel is much more about Jack Burden than it is about Willie Stark.

At the beginning of the novel we find that Willie is running for re-election, and a prominent judge, Judge Irwin, has thrown his support to Willie's opponent. Willie and Jack go to visit Judge Irwin, unannounced and late in the evening, and Willie tries to coerce the Judge into supporting him. It fails, and the attempt is very uncomfortable to Jack, because Judge Irwin was a good family friend, who treated Jack like a son after Jacks' own father left the family. After they leave, Willie tells Jack to dig up some dirt on Judge Irwin, so that Willie can blackmail him to get his support. Jack tells Willie that the judge is an upstanding citizen, and that he can't believe there'd be any dirt on the judge. Willie tells Jack to find the dirt because "There's always something", and that "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." He also tells him to "make it stick". So Jack searches to see if there's anything in the judge's background that can be used against him. And he finds it, and makes it stick.

The story jumps back and forth in time. The part I just described occurs in the first chapter. The story then goes back and tells Willie Stark's tale of rising up from a hick farmer's son to a political powerhouse. And it tells the story of Jack Burden, and his background as well. Jack's family was not only friends with Judge Irwin, but with the family of a former Governor, Governor Stanton, whose children, Adam and Anne, Jack is close childhood friends with. In fact, Anne Stanton was Jack's first love. The whole story is a slow unfolding of what Jack finds out about Judge Irwin, and how this becomes a huge tragedy for Jack, the judge, Anne and Adam Stanton, and Willie Stark himself. It's tragedy on a Greek scale, although at the very end the story has a moderately happy ending. There is some redemption after all.

One of the big themes of the book is that actions have consequences. Jack's digging up the dirt on Judge Irwin has huge consequences, as do may other actions in the book (the deep south in the 1930s was apparently rife with political corruption. Fortunately that kind of thing would never happen in our day and age). For a long time, Jack is fairly amoral himself, and formulates a theory that people do what they do because they are biological machines made of bone and muscle and that they can't help themselves. Their actions are just the results of biological organisms "twitching". As the tragic events of the novel unfold, Jack finally realizes that people need to take responsibility for their actions, and that his actions and the actions of others are not just the results of biological twitches.

If you've noticed, I haven't given any spoilers as to what Jack finds out, and how it affects the characters. That's because I want you to read the book and learn these things on your own. This is a really great book, one of my favorites so far on my list, and it deserves to be read and savored. The author is great at building up tension, and pulling off plot twists and surprises, and I'd hate to spoil it. So read the book...it's a great one.