- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

ALL THE KING’S MEN

By Robert Penn Warren

Harcourt, $22, 672 pages (paperback)

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

A central thing to bear in mind in reading Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is that the

politician Willie Stark, like Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and senator upon whom he is based, actually delivers substantially on the grand promises he makes for better schools, medical care and roads for ordinary citizens mired in backwoods poverty.

In Long’s time ordinary Louisianans, black and white, appreciated this political rarity immensely, though not many others did, aside from a few people such as the journalist (and admirer of rogues and scamps) A.J. Liebling. In Warren’s novel, it is also a journalist, Jack Burden, who most appreciates this promise-keeping — or, rather, ex-journalist, for Jack has left newspapering to become Willie’s factotum and right-hand man.

“At least the Boss does something,” Jack says at one point, unlike the previous half-century of administrations of the unnamed Southern state; “they sat on their asses,” Jack continues, feathering their nests and those of their supporters at the expense of the citizenry. From such conditions do dictators often spring.

That said, it should be emphasized that “All the King’s Men” is not essentially a political novel. It is the classic tale of a decent man fallen from great height because of his own flawed nature. First published in 1946, it won the Pulitzer the next year, was made into a multi-Oscar-winning movie in 1949, has been perennially popular for 60 years, and has been brought out in this Harcourt paperback as a tie-in to the new movie version starring Sean Penn.

For that matter, neither is it exclusively the story of Gov. Willie Stark. It is at least as much, perhaps even more, about Jack Burden. Jack narrates the novel from the viewpoint of 1939, looking back over the previous three decades; about a third of the way through he comments that “the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story.”

In the beginning, circa 1920, Willie is a rural innocent — honest, earnest, dogged and slow-moving. When he learns that, in what had deemed to be his big break into politics, he has been used as a stooge by the establishment, Willie determines to get back at them by succeeding on his own.

He succeeds literally with a vengeance, becoming wildly popular with everyone but the entrenched interests. They complain that Willie is giving away the state away and driving away business, complaints similar to those made at the same time against President Franklin Roosevelt.

In the course of chasing his glory and combating those who would thwart it, Willie changes radically. He turns to using all kinds of low tactics; he motivates aides and enemies alike through fear, bribery and blackmail.

Through it all Jack sticks with him, wondering, increasingly, why he does. It is certainly neither for love nor money. It seems like a compulsion, which could be right, for Willie says, simply, “you work for me because I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are.” The unstated connection may be that both are trying to flee their past.

Jack’s past has been one of irresponsibility. The novel tracks the growth of his character out of this trait.

Opposing Willie’s dark vision that “man is conceived in sin and born in corruption” are Adam and Anne Stanton, idealistic brother and sister and Jack’s friends since boyhood; indeed, Jack has long been in love with Anne.

It does not give too much away to tell that Willie, like Long, is assassinated by what might be termed a disgruntled acquaintance. In fact, the book ends in a slaughter — killings and other deaths triggered by a Southern Gothic miasma of accusations, personal guilt, a revelation of falsely assumed parentage and shifts in romantic/sexual relationships.

Warren (1905-1989), of course, was a renowned poet, a gift that comes clearly through in the novel’s thick, descriptive language. Willie’s native Mason City, for instance, is “the place where Time gets tangled in its own feet and lies down like an old hound and gives up the struggle.” The lush, twisted Southern foliage echoes the twisted political intrigues.

At the end, Willie’s estranged wife Lucy tells Jack she has to believe that Willie was a great man. Later, Jack tells himself he has to believe the same.

I don’t know. I’d like to believe it, too, but I have my doubts. At the very least it can be said that this is a great novel about a man who wanted to be great.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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