Saturday, January 03, 2009

Book report: All the King’s Men

This was a book club pick that I wasn’t all that excited to read, but I’m glad we did. It’s a classic of contemporary American fiction and It has been a gap in my literary education but now I’ll know what people mean when they reference this.

Set in the 1920’s in a Southern state, it’s loosely based on Huey Long’s political operation in Louisiana. Ostensibly, the main character is Willie Stark who begins as a small-time politician used by the state political machine to its own ends and rises to become governor and the boss of his own ruthless corrupt political machine. Willie’s corruption is different from the machine he’s supplanted; he’s doing it for the good of the people and he secures cooperation by threatening to divulge others’ secrets rather than offering them cash.

The real main character, though, is the narrator, Jack Burden, who tells us Willie’s story. Jack reveals his own story along the way and we get to know him through his observations and long and intricate descriptions of things.

It reminds me a smidge of Virginia Woolf (with the stream of consciousness narration), a little bit of Catcher in the Rye (Jack and Holden are similarly emotionally disconnected from the worlds they describe), with a splash of noir with some mystery, patter in the dialogue, and deliciously overwrought metaphors on every page, a few of which have graced the subhead recently. The metaphors alone are reason to read the book. I may have used this as a subhead, but I’ve forgotten, and it’s worth enjoying again anyway:
Duffy was face to face with the margin of mystery where all our calculations collapse, where the stream of time dwindles into the sands of eternity, where the formula fails in the test tube, where chaos and old night hold sway and we hear the laughter in the ether dream.

It won the Pulitzer in 1947. Two movies have been made of it, one in 1949 and one in 2006. The 2006 version (Sean Penn, Jude Law) was on Ebert's list of the worst movies of 2006.

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