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All the King's Men,a novel by Robert Penn Warren ( Book Review and Recommendation)

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All the King’s Men opens sharply, throwing the reader into the midst of things. Jack Burden, a young ex-reporter/ writer, a guy who walked out on his PhD, finds himself in the service of Willie, a raising political force. Willie, whose background doesn’t promise a successful politician, but who is ready to fight against the odds. Jack is there by Willie’s side, not because of the money, not because of the power, not because of anything like that. Why is Jack there? Jack isn’t sure himself. It is a complex question, one that keeps popping through the novel, one that gets answered many times and yet remains open to interpretations. Willie, who is commonly called the boss, says that it is because it is in Jack’s nature? Is it so? But what kind of nature are we talking about?


Jack Burden is, true to his surname, a burdened man. Burdened with both his and his future past, emotionally detached from the society in a way that made me think of Nick from The Great Gatsby. Nick came from the South, didn’t he? Nick sort of tags along with Gatsby, doesn’t he? Jack does the same. Jack puts his life on hold caught up in another’s man charisma, but while Nick just lets things happen without overthinking them in detail, Jack overthinks everything. Jack is a cynic, but a very intelligent cynic and an honest one as well. You could say that all cynics are honest, but you would be wrong for not all bitterness is founded on fact, and even if Jack is bitter as hell, he holds tight on the facts. Nick can be pretty honest in his observations as well, but he doesn’t seem as scientifically attached to facts as Jack is.  One can understand why Jack has to be like that, for Jack is on a quest for truth even if he doesn’t know it. Jack is a student of history and there is a lot of examination of history in this novel. You see, there is this whole parallel story line happening in the past. There is this story of adultery, cruelty and slavery, this tragic story Jack walked out on because he couldn’t comprehend it. Or perhaps Jack was afraid of understanding it? Of owing up to it precisely because it would mean owing up to his own shortcomings?


Within this novel, there is an examination of a short piece of American history, an individual story that is possibly also a story about society. There is that PhD story Jack walked out on because he couldn’t understand Cuss (the subject of his research). This story of a young man who committed an adultery with his friend’s wife, an act that lead to tragic consequences. There is Jack, the history student, who couldn’t understand what he was researching or claimed so. Perhaps because Jack’s own life was falling apart before it even began. Jack’s relationship with his mother, who kept changing husbands and whom he regards with a mixture of admiration and coldness. Yes, I can see how this relationship could have kept Freud entrained for a month. Jack who renounces the only true fatherly figure he has known in favour of Willie.  Speaking of which, there is a lot of psychological portraying in this one and history plays a big part it all the psychological analysis. Throughout the novel, the history keeps getting mixed up in everything. Jack’s personal history gets mixed up with everyone else’s. There are also political schemes and it politics history can be a tricky thing. Jack is often hired to unravel past mysteries. Jack sets out to find dirt on most honest of men, a man who was like a father to him. Jack does it too, yet only to learn that as he uncovers one mystery, he finds out more. Perhaps he also learns something about himself. Perhaps that is why he does it.


How reliable is Jack as a narrator? He is reliable in a cynic kind of way, in a way intelligent person is reliable. Seeing a part of the picture, Jack tells his story and he catches you in his cold web. Jack gets you worked up, at least that’s the effect that he had on me, an effect mixed with a sense of frustration of his own coldness. His detachment might make him more perceptive but still, it is apparent that much remains hidden from Jack himself. As the novel progresses, past episodes get recounted, we get to know more of Jack’s personal history. Characters’ past experiences are often revealed in fragments, but there is so much strength in the writing that you can’t help but get caught up in their past and present tragedies. Jack’s initial emotional detachment, his sense of being lost in the world, his passivity, his observation of society, all the things that make me think of Nick, make them both and at the same time- both a reliable and unreliable narrator. Nick and Jack do have a lot in common, as different as they are.  They both crave for friendship, and not just any kind of friendship. A friendship with a person who is somehow more ‘real’ than others, not necessarily in the sense of being virtuous (for Gatsby and Willie certainly aren’t angels) but in their pursuit of that elusive something.

 In essence, I think both narrators (Nick and Jack) are perfect for the novels they find themselves in. Nick and Jack’s personality differs, and so does the approach to their portrayal, but there are some behaviour patterns they both share. Both respected a flawed man, a corrupt man, and set him on a pedestal. Perhaps because the dream was worth it? Jack doesn’t exactly love Willie, the politician, at least not in an obvious way. You can’t get that sense of sincere friendship and connection, not at very start. Why does Jack do it? Why do Jack and Nick do it? Why do they feel that one man can hold together all the paradoxes of American dream, why do they feel they have to serve the man and the dream even if they sense doom? Is it because Nick and Jack are attracted to something great that exists in this Gatsby or Willie fellow? Is that why Jack stays by Willie’s side? I don’t know what to think about Willie. I just don’t. He remains elusive to me, elusive in a way Gatsby is elusive. Were they both dreamers?


I've read this novel the day before yesterday. I stayed up reading it, the last part that is. The last 200 pages or so I’ve read in the last couple of days, but I toiled reading the beginning. It took me ages to reach the middle. Yes, it took me quite a long time to read this novel. I started it with a hard to explain sensation of dread. Not because of its reputation, the Pulitzer and the critical acclaim it won and so on, but because of those opening pages. Something about the opening paragraphs made me suffer internally. They sure were heavy. I sensed sadness, bitterness and brilliance that made me think of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. The writing was more than good, it was brilliant, I could see that straight away. It was heavy, but it was brilliant. The descriptions were long and lengthy, not something you would expect in a novel that is if not events filled then with plenty of things going on. No, you don’t except those stubbornly long descriptions in a novel that moves as fast as this one does. The descriptions were like a world of their own. They were like something staring you in your face. Their quality of those descriptions was good, precise, sometimes poetical and sometimes surgical. The contrasted somehow both the plot and the portrayal of characters, as they were not a part of the novel, but sometimes that takes a life of its own. That much I could gather from those first few pages. The writing that flowed, flowed steadily and strongly like a might river, but it wasn’t easy to read, not for me, not then and perhaps it never will be. My brain refused the prose initially, my mind pulled away from the sentences and I laboured over the beginning of the book.  From the elaborate descriptions and the N word that was making me feeling slightly nauseated and that felt out of place.


Never have I felt that a writer is trying to prove something right away as with the beginning of this novel. There is something fierce about it, almost like he is showing off, telling you- look, what I can do! Read how I can write! It was like he was trying to make us look into an open wound. Yes, that is how I felt reading this one. He was the surgeon dissecting everything without any sympathy or mercy. He with his writing that was painfully precise, he was showing off every step of the day, the way someone who is really good at his job does and knows is. In that kind of way. Maybe I’m borrowing those surgical descriptions from the novel itself but perhaps these metaphors are perfectly suitable for a book review of All the King’s Man. Oddly, I almost have up on this one, as promising as the writing looked. Should I continue reading or should I give up? I remember feeling pretty down for March was exhausting. March was an endless stream of bad news. Do I need to feel this? Do I need to get work out about characters who don’t exist, and yet perhaps they do, the way all good literary characters really exist and in the way they are (or sure seem) more real than us. I kept reading because I couldn’t do anything else. I kept reading all the while I was feeling this book sitting heavy on my eyebrows, heavy on my chest and heavy on my soul. I kept reading and soaked it all in.


 I felt for Sadie, the torn wrench. Sadie who never had a chance. Sadie who was good at one thing and knew it, but it was all wrong, and there was no way it could have been right. And it was a tragedy. And she knew it. When love gets mixed up with the one thing you’re good at, and then there is a betrayal and you lose it all. You who never had a chance. Yes, I feel for you Sadie. I felt for Jack, the storyteller. I hated him but I understood him. I hated his detachment, his depression and his intelligence. I hated his remarks that made perfect sense. I hated him every step of the way. I hated Jack with passion, and perhaps I still do. I hated Jack’s lack of common decency. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is the perfect narrator for this book. Nor that it changed the fact that I kind of love him. Perhaps because he kept searching for that truth. Despite everyone and despite himself.  I felt for Jack’s mother who had been so unhappy. I felt sorry for her aging face and for her tragedies. For the life she will never have. For the infinite loneliness she condemned herself to. I felt for Anne, crazy Anne who didn’t know what she wanted. Who felt more like a twisted twin of Jack’s, than of her own brother. A brother she had surely loved. I felt for Adam, for the purity of his soul, for not being able to change what he was any less than perhaps any of us can. I felt for them all. Even for Sugar Boy. Even for Sugar Buy.


Half way into this book, I knew it will break my heart. I knew it, but I kept reading. I know that it will break my heart the way every play Tennessee Williams had ever written wrote broke my heart, the way every novel that William Faulkner had ever written left a scar in my soul. The way The Help broke my heart. The way South breaks my heart. South in its complexity, Souths is its elegance and its craziness. South where nobody wants to be rich rich, where a man commits a crime to save his plantation but it is not from greed, it’s from something more complex, it is because the plantation is part of himself, South in which everyone is a part of everyone and everyone’s craziness and passion, vice and virtue, ugliness and beauty are innocence in a way that is hard to explain. Where everything seems interconnected like roots of trees in an ancient forest. That kind of south. South of tragedies. South of sadness. South of honesty. South that can produce such writers and produce them in abundance. It’s the South. This novel is abundant in whatever makes South of USA what it is and yet it is so universal. Universal in a way all great literature is universal.


 I have finished it wondering haven’t I been (at some point of myself) Jack, Anne, Sadie and perhaps even Willie? Haven’t we all? How could I not understand it? How could I not relate to it? How could I not think of Toni Morrison? How could I not think of American Pastoral and Philip Roth? How could I not think of  William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams? How could I not think of Sister Carrie? How could I not think of every USA writer that I have ever read and I have read plenty? I read most of great ones really. All the King’s Men belongs with the best of them for it is undoubtedly a great novel. Those paragraphs about the friends of one youth, and how only a friends of one youth is a true friend, those paragraphs alone are worth reading this book for and yet there are many paragraphs like that. There are so many meaningful things you can take away from this novel, sad things, sometimes even terrible things but meaningful perhaps exactly because of that. What you will not find in this novel. Machiavelli and Freud. History and present. Mommy and daddy issues. Tormented Southern history and tormented Southern present. Psychological portrayal of characters mixed with philosophical observations of human society and nature. A story about power and politics. A story about love and adultery, friendship and sexuality. A story that will make you ask all kind of questions. A very strange romantic story. So, I’m certainly glad that I've read it. Reading All the King’s Men hurt me, but I don’t regret it for the pain was more than worth of what this book had to give in return. That something that only the very best literature can provide us with. Do you know what I mean?


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