Sunday, October 2, 2011

All the King's Men

Reading is kind of like dating. You said 'yes' to dinner, you bought a book. You think: "Looks good." You sniff, (or inhale deeply) and think: "Smells even better." You open the book, you go on the date. You wonder "Will this one be THE ONE?"  

By the end of the date, by the end of the first few chapters, you probably have an idea whether this is the beginning of something special. Or you will donate the book to the Salvation Army's used book sale and give him a bogus phone number and dodge his good-night kiss.

All the King's Men was a blind date for me. I didn't know what I was getting into, but I thought I'd give it a shot. I walked in to the restaurant, saw the guy looking expectantly at the door and thought "Dang. This doesn't look good." I sat down, planning an early escape to the restroom and out the back way, when he pleasantly surprised me. He made me laugh. He held my interest. He made me feel. He used beautiful words.  And I stuck around, wanting more. He was THE ONE. (A fundamental difference between dating and reading is that in dating, hopefully you are only looking for one THE ONE. But in reading, I want every book to be THE ONE. ;) )

The description on the back of ATKM says it is the "finest novel ever written on American politics." Which is kinda a snooze-fest right there. But to me, this book wasn't about politics. It's just the story of two guys: Willie and Jack. In Jack's words: "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story." 

Willie Stark was a man who came from nothing, but had a will to succeed, until he was corrupted by the power he had created for himself. He was a faithful husband who hadn't had a drop of liquor in his life. Until he became a philandering drunkard. Willie Stark resembles the whacko Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was also a self-made man who became a dirty politician and was ultimately assassinated.

Narrated by Jack Burden, one-time newspaperman and Willie's #1 crony, we go with them on the back roads of the Deep South in the middle of the night in a black Cadillac with Sugar-Boy at the wheel. The writing is so vivid that I felt like I was making a 3:00 a.m. visit to a judge to blackmail and intimidate. The cigarette smoke was thick and all these guys in Panama hats and suits were looking wrinkled and wilted after the heat of the day and smelling a little funky.

Robert Penn Warren was a poet, aside from being a novelist, and this book is 661 pages of pure lyricism. It was interesting to observe the character development of the two men: one embraced evil and one found goodness. Willie started out good, but entered into a crooked life. But Jack, amoral, cynical, irreverent, became a man of understanding and feeling. Both men were a product of their actions and beliefs. The ending was both suspenseful and fulfilling. 

Grade: 4/5 stars. My newest THE ONE!

My favorite passages: (Love the poetry of his words.)

…and she laughed with a sudden throaty, tingling way. It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way when they are just being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either. You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth. You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation… that laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shoes and with bands on their teeth. She could set all society by the ears. For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.

So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.


Eva said...

I love the analogy! It's intriguing and true. Sounds like an enjoyable read.

Anonymous said...

I am in love with your description of dating books. Isn't that the truth! I feel like I've been on a few bad dates lately...not horrible sneak out of the bathroom bad. More like, staying in with a good movie would have been better, bad.

So glad you found a winner! I would have never glanced twice at this one...happy you turned me on to it.

Jen (In the Closet With a Bibliophile) said...

Wow, that last line of the last quote was seriously amazing. I gave me the chills a bit. I loved the opening of your review and I was giggling so loud. It is SO true! Where books are concerned I'm definitely not monogamous because that'd be boring, but the whole scenario was truly awesome! :D

rachelkiwi said...

i know, Jen, isn't he amazing?

and who needs literary monogamy? :)