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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is definitely one of "those books." The books you always find on best of lists and must read lists, especially if you are from Louisiana (the state that brought you both Robert Penn Warren and Huey Long). I've heard about this book practically my entire reading life and while I never fully dismissed it, I often judged it as being too Southern or too political for my tastes. I will admit to you now - I was way off base.

The story centers around Willie Stark (sometimes Talos) and his right hand man, narrator, Jack Burden. Everyone knows that Stark is a depiction of Louisiana governor Huey Long, but that fact becomes irrelevant once you enter the story. Personally, I know little about Long's career, but I think this served to enhance my appreciation of the novel. I wasn't constantly questioning which actions were historical and which were fictional. I was absorbed in the world of the characters, which is exactly what a good novel should do for you.

The novel is driven by a cast of characters that evolve continually until all are virtually unrecognizable as the people encountered in the beginning of the story, and that is not to say that the changes are not believable. The absolute best thing about this book is how true it is to the characters and the pressures they have. You cannot say that these are black and white / good or bad people as most of the characters come in varying shades of grey.

Most fascinating is Stark himself, who begins as an idealistic young man that grew up on a small family farm and is virtually without vices. He moves from idealistic dupe to charismatic leader to political slime in short order. The beginning of this transformation, and one of my favorite parts of the novel, comes when Stark is being pushed to change his speeches. His staff has to explain that no one wants to hear about his plans for tax reform; they just want to feel something:
They don't give a damn about that. Hell, make 'em cry, or make 'em laugh, make 'em think you're their weak and erring pal, or make 'em think you're God-a-Mighty. Or make 'em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir 'em up.
And soon there after the Stark we know was born. I think it's poignant, especially in today's political climate, to note that politics has most assuredly always been theater. This is the theater of a well oiled machine that churns people out and eats them up and very often its leavings are dead or broken. In Warren's novel absolutely everyone is broken, either they were from the start or they fell prey to the machine.

All the King's Men is a great novel and it is not too Southern or too political. It is without place or time, a novel about people and humanity, our follies and foibles.

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