Friday, January 18, 2013

All the King's Men

The Pulitzer-prize winning All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is billed as one of the best political novels of all time.  It is supposed to track the rise and fall of a politician who closely resembles the real-life Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana.  The protagonist, Willie Stark, rides a wave of populist support to his first elective office, a real man of the people.  It being the 1930s, though, corruption and worse proves his downfall.

There are a few things I wish I'd better understood before starting this novel.  In particular, that the story is at least as much about the narrator, Jack Burden, as it is about Stark.  Burden's enters into the scene as a journalist covering the still-unknown Stark, a student of history trying to make a living.  Before long, Burden is part of Stark's inner circle, doing unspecified tasks for The Boss.  There is a long and seemingly distracting back-story, where we not only delve into Burden's college career, but get into a detailed retelling of his dissertation subject, one Cass Mastern.

Had I known that the true story was that of Burden, this would have felt like less of a diversion.  The Mastern story is a parallel for Burden's, and there is actually quite a lot to gleam.  If you know what you're looking for.  A little research has suggested that Warren intended the Mastern story to be told in a more parallel manner; the editors felt it needed to be isolated.  So, having read the edited version, I can only imagine the original to be better in this regard.

The Mastern chapter is near the beginning.  This meant a delay to my immersion in the story - I honestly wondered what the fuss was about - but 400+ pages of thorough literature enjoyment.  In my opinion, the political scene and the story of Willie Stark provides a dazzling backdrop for a novel about a search for redemption.  And one of limited results, at that.  For my money, that is a story worth telling, and one worth reading.  I think the novel earns its esteem, but not for the reasons I'd expected.

Next up: Santa gave me Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - a brilliant young adult and graphic novelist who I didn't even know wrote books for grown-ups.  I cannot wait!

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