Wednesday, May 07, 2008

ALL THE KING'S MEN by Robert Penn Warren

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?


Ed Lamb said...

My favorite book of all time. And I onl;y made it to 10:45 while watching the primary returns. BTW: Who won Guam?

Claire said...

I was hoping you'd get to this one. It's on my coffee table right now, cause I pulled it out the other night to flip through Chapter 7's description of "going West".

Claire said...

Oh, and Obama won Guam by something like 7 votes, Ed.

Larry said...

And as I've said before, the ghost of Willie Stark (AKA Huey P. Long) still controls the State of Louisiana.

Safe Travels.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Such a wonderful, sad, beautiful, and profoundly moving book. One of my all-time favorites. And one of the best openings ever, ever. I know this is the Internet and all where posts must be brief (!), but the opening merits reprinting. Here is the first paragraph and a half.


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 and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and 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 reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the 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 up 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 next 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 on it, out of the weeds.

But if you wake up in time and don't hook your wheel off the slab, you'll go whipping on into the dazzle and now and then a car will come at you steady out of the dazzle and will pass you with a snatching sound as though God-Almighty had ripped a tin roof loose with his bare hands.....