All the King's Men*

by Robert Penn Warren

I'd swear my copy of All the King's Men is single spaced. It is a massive & dense book. I mean this literally & figuratively: The writing isn't lean at all. Robert Penn Warren was more into cadence and provocative content than he was into editing. Passages like the following abound, "Anne Stanton always looked level at you, and you had the feeling that she was looking at something far away. She always held her head high, and you had the feeling that she was waiting for a voice which you wouldn't be able to hear. She always stood so trim and erect, and you had the feeling that all her grace and softness was caught in the rigor of an idea which you could not define." Those three sentences contain 75 words cumulatively. Yet there's a lot of redundancy: 16% of the words are the same! Based on this formula, if you read my copy of All the King's Men, you'll be reading a 438-page book when you really could have just read a 70-page novella...and gotten roughly the same story out of it.

OK. I'm being hard on Robert Penn Warren. Part of it is due to coming off of the most sparsely written book on the list thus far (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), only to be hit next with one of the most densely written. Quel juxtaposition! The other reason I'm feeling like a crosspatch upon finishing reading this book, and professing iconoclasm, is actually a testament to how well written All the King's Men is. Robert Penn Warren's protagonist & narrator here had me...absolutely had me...throughout the book as one of the lone voices of reason. His arguments in defense of a corrupt politician sometimes won me over: What's so very wrong with trying to make good OUT OF bad (or right out of wrong)? Indeed, Jack Burden is as close as the reader can get to an island in a roiling sea of moral relativism and the ends justifying the means. But by the book's end you realize this guy is incredibly fucked up, near totally morally bankrupt himself, and has been the entire time. ("[W]hat virtue and honor I had known in the past had been an accident.") The devastating truth is that that 'island' to which you were clinging has been all along—due to moral failings & lies—essentially an unreliable narrator! I didn't see that coming. I feel hoodwinked. Good writing.

And now I'm being too hard on Jack Burden. Sure he undergoes some redemption by the end, but he tells lies to each of his parents within the last chapter, and the lie to his father comes on the penultimate page of the novel! The horrendous, huge lie to his mother—to which he "swears to God"—he conceptualizes as a "present" to her, and the lie to his father he justifies in order to keep his father's mind "untroubled." What a guy. These final untruths only shed light on the many times Jack Burden prevaricated throughout the narrative—mostly to himself, or at least, the biggest lies about the biggest matters (like life-and-death) were to himself. But guess who else Jack Burden lied to: YOU, dear reader! The way this reality plays out and is subtly & slowly revealed—and only fully realized at book's end—left Classic Bitch feeling betrayed. Which is perfect really: It's masterful execution by the author. Now I feel dirty. Voila! Welcome to politics!

I think a book that can make you have a visceral reaction is a good book. But beyond my own feelings—and beyond what most people already know going into the reading: about it being a thinly veiled account of the rise & fall of Louisiana's "Kingfish" Huey Long—should you read All the King's Men? I can tell you more impassively that on the downside, the book's asynchronous narration is a bit abstruse at times & even gets the author painted into corners he has to then use plot contrivances—or even tell more than show—to get out of. Additionally there are plot points that are too telegraphed, too heavy-handedly allegorical, & too easy to see coming. On the plus side, however, there is (as a subplot) nice handling of what today we would recognize as clinical depression, called the "Great Sleep" in these pages. And overall, the narrative is timeless! You might have to keep reminding yourself as you read that Robert Penn Warren is telling a tale of the 1930s. I found All the King's Men to be a good window on politics in any era! Probably why I hold moderate views and don't believe anymore...

*Pulitzer Prize winner for the year 1947.