Monday, December 16, 2013

Pulitzer Project: All the King's Men

The last few prize winners I've read had been, to put it kindly, duds. My expectations for All the King's Men were accordingly low. I had somehow forgotten (or never realized) that the author, Robert Penn Warren, is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. His other two prizes were for poetry. It shows.

All the King's Men flows despite -- or, more accurately, because of -- all the things the author does wrong. It's loaded with run-on sentences that should make a card carrying member of the grammar police run screaming in horror but instead mesmerize the reader. Where was his editor? How on earth did he get away with constructing paragraphs that fill pages but are essentially one long sentence that just keeps flowing and flowing until you've been sucked in like a fallen magnolia leaf being slowly but surely washed to the Gulf by an autumnal Louisiana rain? It doesn't matter. You've been sucked in, you're as trapped by Penn Warren's words as his protagonist Jack Burden was by politician Willie Stark's charisma.

All the King's Men was heavily influenced by the career of Louisiana politician Huey "Kingfish" Long. Long was a populist who was elected to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928. For generations Louisiana politics had been controlled by big money -- the oil industry, railroads, logging, sugar and cotton plantations. Long went up against them all, courted the votes of the ordinary voters, and managed to shake up the established political machine. After becoming governor, he undertook an ambitious public works program that improved roads throughout the state, constructed public hospitals, and built a new state capitol building. To the man on the street Long was a hero. To the disgruntled political operatives and business interests, of course, he was anathema. He cleaned out one political machine and replaced it with his own.

In 1930, while still serving as Governor, Long ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana. Even after leaving the governorship, however, Long continued to lobby the state legislature and senate to pass bills he believed in. In 1935 Long was in the state capitol building pushing for a redistricting bill. He was shot by the son-in-law of a judge who would have lost his position had the measure passed. Long died in the hospital two days later.

In All the King's Men politician Willie Stark follows a similar career trajectory with just enough differences for Penn Warren to be able to claim that although Long's story may have been an inspiration it wasn't an exact model. Long married a stenographer and had multiple children; Willie Stark marries a school teacher and has only one child. Long was elected twice to a state-wide office before winning the governorship; Stark's first political office is at the county level and doesn't last long. Long was elected to the U.S. Senate and served almost a full term before dying; Stark is gunned down while still serving as Governor.

The story overall is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former journalist who is asked by Stark to join his staff as an aide and researcher. Burden had trained as a historian and then worked as a reporter. When Stark wants to find people's secrets, he has Burden do the research. As Stark tells Burden, you never need to make up lies about an opponent because there is always a truth that will be more damaging:
And [Stark] said, 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.'  
And he told me to dig it out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen, dove-gray hide. It was the proper job for me, for, as I have said, I was once a student of history. A student of history does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past. He doesn't care whether it is the dead pussy or the Kohinoor diamond. So it was a proper assignment for me, an excursion into the past.
Everyone has secrets, things that they don't want the world to know. All you have to do is find out what those secrets are. Some secrets can destroy you, some secrets can set you free. The secret in All the King's Men is that even though you begin the novel thinking the story is about Willie Stark and the use and abuse of power, by the time you get to the end you know it's actually Jack Burden's story and the secrets he uncovers about his own life.

All the King's Men was made into a 1949 film starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark. I have not seen the film, but based on the synopsis provided by Wikipedia, the plot line of the film deviated considerably from the narrative of the book. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. A 2006 version starring Sean Penn apparently followed the novel much more faithfully but flopped with the critics and the public. It more than broke even at the box office, but not by much. Although a few critics praised it, the overall consensus was that it was "agonizingly dull" and "strangely lifeless." Both are available as DVDs through Netflix; maybe if they show up as streamable movies I'll try watching one or the other.

How would I rate this book? On a scale of 1 to 10, it gets an 11. I loved the wordsmithing, the long, convoluted sentences that rolled on and on, the imagery ("the bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve"), the narrative threads and subplots twisting and coiling and turning back on themselves as one secret unfolded to reveal another. The Willie Stark story line is a straight forward one -- power corrupts and karma's a bitch -- but the structure Penn Warren built around it is remarkably complex.

Next up on the list? Tales of the South Pacific, which I know I've read before but am feeling the urge to re-read. 

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read it but it is now on my list. Having been raised in Mississippi I am well familiar with the Long dynasty. Earl Long (affectionately known and Uncle Earl by the voters of Louisiana)was one of the most colorful southern politicians ever to hold sway in the south. Three time governor and political brawler - the true epitome of southern politics in the early part of the 20th century.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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