The Book: Robert Penn Warren, ALL THE KING'S MEN. Bantam Classic paperback reprint, 1966 (18th printing). Fair condition; book is intact but fragile, pages are brown and brittle, spine is heavily creased. Previous owner's markings on front cover, including an old phone number for VEPCO (now Virginia Power).
First read: 1982
Owned since: 1982
If you -- like me -- stayed up much too late last night waiting for returns from Indiana, you might have wondered: Why do people run for office, and what makes people hang onto it at all costs?
If you stayed up for last night's returns, you've probably already read this book -- but if you haven't, it explains it all for you. It is the great American political novel, beginning with a loving description of a highway built with public funds and ending with the narrator musing on the nature of history, honor, and public service. In between are passion, betrayal, love, anger, corruption, lies and terrible, costly hope.
Reporter Jack Burden becomes, almost accidentally, the advance man and press secretary for grassroots politician Willie Stark, who might be a buffoon except for his uncanny charisma and political vision. Willie gets into politics to do good, and never doubts that he has the people's benefit at heart. As his career rises, however, the other compensations of politics distract him, and he becomes more and more willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.
Willie Stark gains the world and loses his soul, and Jack Burden is his henchman until his last illusion is betrayed. Willie says, "Man is born in sin and conceived in corruption and passeth from the stench of the didie to the stink of the shroud. There is always something" to be dug up on his opponents, something to be used as leverage. Jack doesn't want to believe him, but Willie turns out to be right. Maybe.
The power of ALL THE KING'S MEN comes from the fact that Willie is good as well as evil, and sets himself against things he perceives as greater evil. When this was the Questions blog, my brother James asked whether politicians realize how slimy they are. I said that no, they mostly don't, and this book was the beginning of that understanding.
On the road again today, and posting between now and Tuesday may be erratic -- which shouldn't matter much, since I'll be seeing most of my regular readers.
Five Random Songs
"Wild World," Jimmy Cliff. From his In Concert (Live) recording. Once you hear this song with a reggae beat, you'll never hear it any other way.
"The Sharpest Thorn," Elvis Costello & Alvin Toussaint. I had a last minute invitation to go to JazzFest in New Orleans last week, and turned it down because I was too tired and had too much work to do. I am now officially middle-aged.
"Ever Fallen in Love," The Buzzcocks. And then I hear this song and think, well, maybe not...
"The Best," ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. I think this song was a single, off their album Worlds Apart.
"Punky Reggae Party," Bob Marley. It must be summertime. The weather report says it'll get above 80 in Washington, DC today. What the hell do I have to wear?