Monday, April 29, 2013

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

Don’t know how I’ve missed mentioning this, but I’ve plowed my way through Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men , and it absolutely blew me away. Brilliant, brilliant book.

Warren melds pitch-perfect descriptive language with deep-fried country-boy-isms to create an extremely distinctive style. Here’s a free-sample tray:
“…her own glance strayed about the room in that abstracted way a good housewife has of looking around to surprise a speck of dust in the act.”
“ ’I know you and the boss was like that.’ He held up two large, white, glistening episcopal fingers as in benediction.”
“Then the boss spied a fellow at the far end of the soda fountain, a tall, gaunt shanked, malarial, leather-faced side of jerked venison wearing jean pants and a brance of mustaches hanging off the kind of face you see in photographs of General Forrest’s cavalrymen…”
I mean, come on, how good is that! Right?

The story doesn’t disappoint either. He weaves links to the past into the story in rewarding, surprising ways. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a sure-fire way to win me over as a reader. He also makes use of something I’ll call the Literary Cosmic Boomerang. It’s not quite Karma, and not poetic justice. But one way or another, the unseen ramifications of a character’s actions come right back to kick him in the crotch and give the story new and deeper meanings. (And even though Willie Stark’s assassination by the same doctor who  just days before had operated on his son should have taken a private tale of corruption public, I can overlook that simple oversight.) I loved it.

There is, however, one chief complaint: The Cass Mastern side story. Our main character, Jack Burden, interrupts his main narrative thread tracing the rise and fall of a folksy southern political star, with a too-long, overly thorough side story of star-crossed lovers in the Civil War era. It was still well-written, and pretty compelling in and of itself, but I was antsy to get back to the main story, and saw little if any parrallels that would justify its inclusion in the book. And yeah, I’ve read the commentary that says the Cass Mastern line of research helps Jack see that every action will have implications and ripples we can’t control, but I just didn’t see the point. Warren and his editor were asleep at the switch on this one.

But it still won the Pulitzer, and it still deserved it. That’s how awesome the rest of the book is. Run, don’t walk…

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