Saturday, October 31, 2009

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

A truly American epic, All the King’s Men, though written 60 years ago and set even farther back, is a coming-of-age tale for today’s young men, who don’t actually become men until their mid-30s, just like protagonist Jack Burden. Simple but heavy, Burden is a man with few convictions of his own, torn between the memories of an intellectual father turned religious madman, an emotional debt to the elderly judge who took his father’s place as a role model, and the demands of “the boss”—Governor Willie Stark, a power-drunk but service-minded politician, a self-made man made fully from piss and vinegar, and nights up late studying law. Burden has detached himself emotionally from his work (he’s a kind of guy-Friday cum-fixer, an underground PR man) and, in fact, from most of his life. The only thing in which he maintains any emotional investment is the elusive Anne Stanton, a childhood friend (actually the younger sister of his childhood friend Adam, who as an adult has withdrawn in his own way, a neurosurgeon of Ayn Randian proportions). Anne and Jack were high school lovers, but did not marry.

As Burden does his work, trying to wear blinders, the interconnected underbelly of his network slowly emerges; hands deep in the dirt, he discovers that the elderly judge was not always so ethical as he seemed—but furthermore that the elderly judge, and not the intellectual madman, was his actual father (was rather than is, as the confrontation over the ethical lapse drives the old man to suicide before the second discovery is made). Worse, Burden discovers that Anne and Stark are having an affair. He drives all the way west, spends a few nights drunk in a California hotel room, then drives back to work. It’s the affair, though, that brings the end of Willie Stark—brother Adam Stanton gets a secret tip-off about the affair, and in true no-compromises fashion, shoots Stark dead (Stark’s driver and bodyguard Sugarboy shoots Adam dead in turn).

With the deaths of all these fathers, Burden is at last able to become a man. He marries Anne Stanton, and with this epilogue, the novel’s throbbing pulse peters out. The story is Burden’s, though it ends with Stark’s death, because Stark’s life enables Burden’s repression. “All the king’s men” refers, of course, to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, where Stark is the big egg on the wall, and Burden one of the men (along with a well-styled cast of supporting characters including the stuttering Sugarboy and the over-fed Tiny Duffy) who can’t put him back together after his fall. And yet, the breaking of an egg in most natural cases leads to the birthing of a chick. Stark’s life, career, and concomitant assignments generate the tasks that enable Burden to seal himself inside the shell, blindly rolling through the world, still an infant. It is truth of his heroes’ infidelities that lead to the deaths that break the shell, and so of course the egg can’t be put “together again”—nor would we want it so.

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