Friday, March 9, 2012

#51 - 'All the King's Men' by Robert Penn Warren

Two years ago today, I returned All the King's Men to the library, without having read it.  That would be the first time I did so, but not the last; and I have since returned 32 books from this list without having read them.  In fact, it wasn't even the last time I borrowed this particular book from the library and returned it without reading it.  I have taken All the King's Men out four times.  It wasn't as if I was ever avoiding it, quite the contrary.  It just always seemed to slip through the cracks for one reason or another.  But no more!  Number 51 is finished, the fourth Pulitzer-prize winner from the list, and the second who's movie also won Best Picture (the other being Gone With the Wind).

I previously wrote this book was about Huey Long, or at least the Huey Long-esque character of Willie Stark, Governor of Louisiana.  And while he's obviously an integral part of the story, All the King's Men is a character study of four individuals, each flawed in their own way, with the polarizing Governor Stark binding them together, while at the same time, driving them apart.

Willie Stark is a smart, but uneducated man, who climbs his way from the poorest of farms to the Governor's seat, on a campaign of hard-work, honesty and integrity.  A populist candidate if ever there was one, representing the opposite of the other candidates, as somebody any citizen could identify with.  Of course we quickly learn that while Stark is full of good intentions, wanting to build highways and provide his state with free, universal (gasp!) health care, he isn't exactly the model citizen he portrays to the world.  Stark uses a combination of blackmail, intimidation, and corruption to achieve his goals and retain his grip on power, and he's a prototypical advocate for the end justifying the means.

Carrying out much of the dirty work is Jack Burden, the book's narrator.  A former PhD candidate in History, former newspaper man, and current assistant to the Governor, Jack grew up in what could only be described as a wealthy family, not really wanting for anything, yet still possess a very "down-to-earth" view of the world, and lives without any of the upper-crust cliches one might expect from such a character.  He began working for Stark at a young age, and in a way, has come of age with the Governor.

Also entangled in Stark's web are Ann and Adam Stanton, siblings who grew up in Jack's 'aristocratic' neighbourhood, but do not share his enthusiasm for Willie Stark.  Adam is a doctor hired by the Governor to run his new hospital, despite their complete disagreement with how he runs the State, and Ann is his sister and Jack's former fiancee, who despite disagreeing with his methods, has a soft spot for both the Governor and for Jack.

After a bit of a slow start, I become very engrossed in this book, desperate to see what would happen next, as well as finding myself completely shocked and outraged and a couple of developments.  My like or dislike of Willie Stark as a person and as a public servant would swing wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other.  While many of his ideas were intoxicating and inspirational, so many of his actions were despicable.  These are the same struggles Jack Burden finds himself experiencing as he narrates for the reader.

For the most part, Burden thinks of himself as merely 'doing his job', not blackmailing Stark's political and personal opponents.  He chooses and succeeds for a long time, at divorcing his conscience from his actions; something so few are able to do.  But when people he is close to become the subject of Stark's blackmailing, Jack begins to see the consequences of his actions, as he learns how everything in his world is connected in one way or another.  No longer can he pretend there aren't unwanted consequences to what he is doing, and no longer can the Governor's goals make up for the manner in which they are achieved.

While I enjoyed the story, the writing, and the character development, I think what I really enjoyed about reading All the King's Men were a couple of major plot twists.  After setting the scene, developing each character and letting the reader really get to know everybody, Warren drops a couple of bomb shells that left me speechless.  But these plot twists didn't have the corny factor that can plague such a technique, rather they are explained in a rational, plausible manner, and not only left me anxious to keep reading, but also emotional, usually angry, and what had developed.  It was my sympathy for Jack Burden, and dislike of Willie Stark that brought me into the story and the dramatic plot developments that kept me going.  Without a doubt, one of my favorite books so far.

For my next book, I've chosen Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.  Her other book on The List, To the Lighthouse was one of my least favorite so far, and I'd be lying if I said I had any interest in reading this one.  However, it's part of The List and must be read, so I've decided to get it over with right now, in an effort to avoid having too many 'unwanted' reads (see also Gravity's Rainbow and The Man Who Loved Children) at the end of this adventure

1 comment:

  1. I also loved this book. I had an inaccurate impression of what it would be like, derived from the movie with the sweaty-faced Broderick Crawford, leering and hollering. It was so much more nuanced and interesting. Makes me wonder why political movies are never very good?