Book Look - All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren

Have never read a book that felt more like a graduate class. No, make that three graduate classes, for there's enough in here to provide ample curriculum for Ethics in Politics 320, Rhetoric & Logic 420, and at least a full semester of Modern American Literature.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told in first person by Jack Burden, former journalist-turned-aide to Willie Stark, a southern governor in the Huey Long mold: broad, brash, and bold. But now that I've gotten that out of the way you can stop worrying about it, because what this book is really about is Original Sin/corruption/moral compromise. Literally every character in this tale faces some sort of moral/ethical dilemma. A small handful (for instance, the governor's wife Lucy) manage to navigate the morass of existence without falling from grace, but the vast majority slip and fall - some out of a genuine lack of morality (for instance, the assistant governor, Tiny Duffy, a true Tammany Hall villain), but most of them gradually, one ethical compromise yielding inevitably to another, like a Jenga tower from which pieces are systematically removed until the whole thing collapses. I'm not sure whether Penn himself is clear whether this is the result of free will or a manifestation of Original Sin. One of the governor's favorite quotes, repeated often throughout the tale, is that "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 [corrupt in their nature]" - suggesting that at least a part of him comes down on the side of Original Sin. But it's hard not to want to kick many of the (largely unsympathetic) characters in the butt every time they wittingly make choices that are obviously going to lead to catastrophe.

Students of Ethics in Politics will relish the examination of how Governor Stark's noble motives become gradually corrupted by the realities of the political system in which he operates. Originally convinced to run for office by corrupt politicians counting on him to split the "rube" vote so that the state's Political Machine can continue to churn unmolested, Stark eventually turns the tables on his manipulators, but in doing so finds himself resorting to increasingly unethical methods (threats, blackmail) in order to achieve his largely unselfish and well-meaning ends. Which begs the question that seems to arise every time someone like Huey Long - or, more recently, DC Councilman Marion Berry - ends up on trial for corruption, even as thousands of deservedly grateful, devoted constituents picket the courthouse steps: can even the noblest of intentions ever justify ethically questionable means?

Meanwhile, students of rhetoric and logic will be kept busy by chapter upon chapter of cascading syllogisms employed in order to justify all sorts of questionable ends. No topic seems too vast or intimidating to escape Penn's scrutiny, from life, death, and fate, to the nature of good, evil, and God. The narrator, Jack Burton, uses these syllogisms as justification for a series of increasingly dubious acts; what's less clear is whether he is self-aware enough to realize the extent to which his syllogisms are laced with sly and intricate fallacies, enough to keep a class of grad students huddled over pints of ale for months, hashing them all out.

And, lest students of Modern American Lit feel left out, there's plenty left for them in examining the parallelism between ancient Greek tragedy and Stark's gradual fall from grace (substitute Judge Irwin's fall from grace, or Adam Stanton's fall from grade, or Jack Burden's fall from grace, if you prefer), culminating in a series of climaxes as horrific as they are undoubtedly hubristic. Even the names of the characters in the story - Jack Burden, Tiny Duffy, Willie Stark - are loaded with symbolic and metaphoric relevance. No - English lit students needn't feel slighted; there is more than enough here to keep them churning out papers until final exams week.

In other words, this book is stuffed full of juicy, complex content - which makes it a capital book for studying, but perhaps doesn't much contribute to creating a diverting or entertaining reading experience. The characters aren't particularly likeable, the plot is largely introspective rather than event-driven, and - believe me - I'm not spoiling anything by letting it slip that no one lives happily ever after, which can make portions of this tough slogging. Guess I'm saying that while there's plenty of meat here, definitely requires an investment in energy, attention and cognition on the part of the reader in order to appropriately digest it.

No comments:

Post a Comment