Title: All the King's Men
Author: Robert Penn Warren
Date Finished: May 20, 2008
Yearly Count: 26
WAHHHOOOOO! I was assigned this book my junior year of college and didn't finish; since then I have picked it up two or three times, read a dozen or so pages, and put it right back down. But, I finally persevered and finished it. I feel like I've been holding my breath for six years and can finally breathe.
All the King's Men is about a southern politician, Willie Stark, as he makes an unlikely climb up the political ladder to become governor of an unnamed state (based loosely on the life of Huey P. Long--so the state is in theory Louisiana). He is used by others at first to help split a vote, but when Stark finds out he is being played by others he stakes his claim and begins speaking directly to the people. He doesn't win his election, but the people hear his voice. Soon he does become governor, but somewhere along the way he becomes entrenched in the power of his position and...well, I'm not going to tell you!
While the story of Willie seems to be the main focus, the book is narrated by Jack Burden, a once newspaper man and later the secretary and right-hand man to Willie. As Jack explains, "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in a sense, one story" (157). It slowly becomes clear that Jack's search for truth and meaning is the center and heart of All the King's Men. Jack tells the story of Willie's climb to the top, of his love affairs with various women, of his short comings and failings, but really, Jack is telling his own story about love and loss, redemption and truth, and finally answers to all of the questions.
So, did I like the book? I did like it. I didn't love it. The language Warren uses throughout the book is at the same time beautiful and tedious. This is not a weekend book, nor do I think it was meant as such. Every sentence (there is little dialogue) is packed with careful meaning, and I found myself having to re-read passages in order to grasp all of the hidden connections and subtle metaphors. But essentially I believe this quote gives a nice little summary of what is at the heart of this book (and it also gives a taste for the writing):
"...the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God's eye, and the fangs dripping" (188-9).
Although Jack acts as if he is a bystander in the book, merely recording the events as they happen, he has to take responsibility for his actions--how even the slightest touch to the web of life will cause the other threads to ripple infinitely. Everything from his relationship to his mother, his love affair with Anne, his father and what he asks of him, and the way that all of these things connect to Willie shape the story--making All the King's Men as much the story of Jack as it is Willie.
This book is a fascinating look into the human mind and one that I am grateful to have encountered. There has been some talk on the classics meme that I put up last weekend about how sometimes we don't know why a classic is a classic--and I think in many cases this book is a classic, but I'm wondering why it was left off of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. For all of its longwindedness (reminiscent of Faulkner--who is the king of Southern Lit...right??) :) it is a captivating and thought-evoking book.
*If you've reviewed it, let me know!