All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) Harcourt ("Restored Edition"; 2001) 656 pp
There are those books out there that one hears of frequently but has no desire to read. All the King’s Men was one of those for me. Nevertheless, one day my interest was piqued by the “Restored Edition” put together from the original notes by Noel Polk, textual editor of the works of William Faulkner, and published in 2001. Polk has an editorial afterword in which he explains some of the differences between this version and the one published in 1946. One obvious difference is that the infamous name of Willie Stark has been changed back to Warren’s original: Willie Talos. A less obvious change, and one I’m personally thankful for since I think Warren has a better feel than his editors, is the replacement of passages deleted to make sure the novel conformed to the era’s sense of “taste.” For example, this sentence, written by the intense, jaded James Burden: “To hell with Adam, I told myself, did he think he could put lead seals on his sister’s drawers. Hell, somebody had probably hosed her already.” Burden says this in retrospect, and it is a very ironic statement, not simple prurience. Now, I haven’t read the original version and cannot comment on whether this restoration is really warranted. I can say, however, that reading the book is.
As I said above, I never wanted to read this. Seeing this edition, however, I pulled it from the shelf and read the first paragraph, which, incidentally, is different from the original’s, which I have since read and which did not pull me in. But here we have the restored version:
You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of your neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lord Gawd, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull-and-cross-bones. Later in love-vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.
Here we meet one of my favorite narrators, Jack Burden, riding in the car with his boss, the governor and political powerhouse Willie Talos (or Stark for most of you). Jack’s job: to dig up dirt on people in Willie’s way. Warren’s gifts in poetry (he is the only author to have won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — for this book — and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) are used to great effect to introduce Burden, a jaded former history student. He reminds me of one of my other favorite narrators, Nathan Zuckerman, both equally capable of saying, “Goodbye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.”
But first, let’s look at what I think is the pseudo-subject of the novel: Willie the politician. After rising up from nowhere as a young idealist, now that Willie is in power, he has let it overtake him. Now corrupt, it’s much less about the politics and much more about kickbacks and maintaining power in the power game.
“My God, you talk like Byram was human! He’s a thing! You don’t prosecute an adding machine if a spring goes bust and makes a mistake. You fix it. Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grand-children will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why. Boy, it will be the shock in the genes, and their teeth will be set on edge. Hell, Byram is just something you use, and he’ll sure be useful from now on.”
Jack Burden watches in awe as his larger-than-life boss dominates every relationship he enters. Indeed, Willie is an interesting character, and Warren draws him up well. There are moments we truly feel pity for him and wish him well along with moments when we begin to plan our own assassination attempts.
But to me the true subject, and a far more interesting subject, is Burden himself. Once a history student who quit because he got a bit to close to some unattainable truth, he now delves into other’s pasts for Willie. However, as disinterested as he is, he can never completely separate his own existence and identity from his ventures into the past. Burden’s struggle to come to grips with his own identity in a world he despises enough that he doesn’t care to help even when he can are by far Warren’s most penetrating insights. It is in these passages that Warren lets his poetic pen slip into the stream of his prose:
There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is who you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.
But Jack’s philosophical meanderings don’t deal with identity only. While attempting to complete his first major venture into the past, this time for a research project at school, Jack comes upon philosophical realizations that make him quit out of fear and adopt his uncaring attitude about his and other people’s lives. Now called upon to do another large venture into the past to find some dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins to distinguish between facts and truth. Judge Irwin played a large role in Jack’s youth; indeed, Jack’s past includes most of the book’s central characters: his lost love Anne Stanton, her brother Adam, and Judge Irwin himself. And Jack is now smart enough, or at least cynical enough, to know that the people he knew in the past no longer exist but that the actions of the past have ramifications that ripple out forever:
The friend of your youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name — Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave — which belongs to that now non-existent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.
As the book marches and flows on, the stories of Willie and Jack dance around each other and the whole of the novel is a powerful look at human nature and corruption. Notice I haven’t said a lot about politics, though this is considered the preeminent novel on American politics. In fact, Willie is based on real life governor Huey P. Long. Sure, politics is in the mix, but Warren’s book is not so limited.