Here It Is, You Hicks: A Rave Review Of ‘All The King’s Men’
1:38 PM EDT on May 5, 2021
Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our April DRAB selection was Robert Penn Warren’s All The King's Men, which the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading.
Giri Nathan: It is not too bad of a spoiler to note that this book very nearly qualifies for Senators Week. Like … if Adam Stanton had waited just a little longer, we’d be in the clear. Almost had it.
Maitreyi Anantharaman: I think it does qualify for Senators Week! Willie Stark is based on Huey Long, who was a U.S. Senator. I’m counting it!
Kelsey McKinney: Absolutely this book qualifies! It’s full of Talk About The Senate and Senators!
GN: Yeah, that’s a good point. We almost had an in-universe senator too though. The sad and horrible part is that it took Tom Stark almost dying to effectively lock up the Senate seat for Willie, but then Willie went and died too. I’m now also realizing that Jack Burden says that Willie dies in the beginning of the book so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it, on the off-chance that the real-life assassination of Huey Long was not spoiler enough.
MA: A weird and embarrassing thing is that I had read this book before, knew about the Huey Long parallel and still did not remember Willie Stark dying? I had completely invented this ending in my head that I now realize is actually the ending to The Devil Wears Prada—like Jack Burden just deciding to throw his cell phone in the fountain and quit his job.
GN: I’m dyin’. “I can’t even,” said Jack Burden, before chucking his BlackBerry. Now that you mention it, I was struck by how fresh both the language and the action of this book felt. I don’t want this to become a recurring theme in these discussions, where I stupidly profess awe at The Power of Literature to make the old feel timeless, but I found myself forgetting over and over again that this was all going down in the Great Depression and the book was published in 1946! Why aren’t they using more corny phrases that I have to look up? Why do they hang out and scheme and date in basically recognizable ways?
KM: Yes! Everything felt almost too relatable to me. The populism of Stark is almost too ripe for comparison. The copy I bought came with a little intro from Penn Warren where he pitched a big fit about people comparing his book to Huey Long (even though that is the most obvious comparison in the world). This is kind of an inane point, but I’m sure if I had read this book when it came out it would have been really important to me to compare it to the real event. But that it holds up so well 70 years later makes me think that maybe Warren was right to be miffed about that comparison?
MA: I was kind of curious to revisit this after the Trump presidency—a time when various newspaper columnists got a lot of mileage out of Trump-Stark comparisons—to see if those comparisons actually held up. I don’t quite think they do. I think they even do a disservice to Willie Stark; he was much smarter and much more concerned with the work of governing. If there was a character with some contemporary resonance for me, it was actually Adam Stanton, who brought to mind the whole issue of the ethics of doing good within a corrupt regime.
KM: This was my first time reading this book so I did not understand how silly those comparisons were. But in retrospect I am really having a laugh at the fact that the book is narrated by a newspaper columnist who has truly questionable ethics at BEST.
GN: Hey, he was a reporter, let’s restore some valor to poor Jack. The part that definitely makes me think about Orange Man had more to do with Willie Stark’s place in the popular imagination than in any actual behaviors they share. There was one passage in particular, talking about how the family-values voters didn’t mind that Willie slept around, because “it only meant that the Boss was having it both ways, and that seemed a mark of the chosen and superior … the voter knew what it meant, and wanted both Mom’s gingerbread and the black-lace negligee and didn’t hold it against the Boss for having both.” This hilariously stupid and fundamentally human cognitive dissonance that allows someone to look at Donald damn Trump in the face and see a man of faith or whatever they were intent on seeing anyway. The difference is that divorce was the dealbreaker in Willie’s age and I don’t even know what the dealbreaker for Donald would have been—or if over the course of four years he basically proved that one did not exist. I loved when he was cornered into talking about the Bible or whatever.
KM: Giri, you are making a great point here but I also want to point out how beautiful that quote you pulled is. What incredible writing! It’s unfair to be so clear in your meaning while using such perfect descriptions. This is a long quote but I must place it here and force everyone else to think about for days like I have: “[F]or when you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time, you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up. So you create yourself by creating another person, who, however, has also created you, picked up the you-chunk of clay out of the mass. So there are two you's, the one you create by loving and the one the beloved creates by loving you. The farther those two you's are apart the more the world grinds and grudges on its axis. But if you loved and were loved perfectly then there wouldn't be any difference between the two you's or any distance between them. They would coincide perfectly, there would be perfect focus, as when a stereoscope gets the twin images on the card into perfect alignment.”
MA: Some absolute bars. It’s funny, I think because these are the only books I’m required to analyze this seriously, I end up thinking of all our DRAB books in relation to each other. I couldn’t help but think of the swiftness and economy of some of Fitzgerald’s lines while reading these, which are downright baroque. Robert Penn Warren will have you three paragraphs into the most vivid and amazing metaphor, and sometimes I was like, “OK, buddy, now you’re just showing off.”
GN: On a technical level this book was just bonkers. Way better than I expected, and while I knew it was an American classic and yadda yadda, every paragraph could be engraved in stone. And there are over 650 pages of such paragraphs. Warren has that Woolfian tendency to take an extremely granular observation and fly out into this breathless, timeless, universal register. It’s an extremely grand gesture and it’s hard to pull off and there were so many times I thought that if this book was not good, it would suck. So bad! But it is in fact good.
KM: Like you both, I found myself comparing this a lot to Gatsby. What really stunned me is that I think a lot of times with these telescoping big-picture metaphors and descriptions, the pacing of a book can really struggle. With Gatsby we talked about how fast of a read Fitzgerald made it and how that kind of pushed you through the narrative. But in that book all of the tension, to me at least, came from the plot. Here, it feels like there are so many layers of tension at play: the plot, sure, but also on a sentence level? These sweeping phrases have momentum. I have no idea how he did it.
MA: Right, there’s a sort of languid-ness right from the beginning that puts you on edge. I think it’s an absolutely gorgeous book but I will not soon be revisiting it. The Uncut Gems of books. It really did a number on my nerves.
GN: It’s also the kind of book that makes writing seem harder. Which I can only read so many of a time, so long as my job is to type words.
KM: Same to both! It made me self-conscious and also stressed! I enjoyed it but will read it again in 2050 if I am still alive.
MA: I wonder which new populist dictator we’ll be comparing to Willie Stark in 2050.
GN: There’s a scene where Anne Stanton and Jack are at Slade’s and kidding about getting married at some far-flung date and the date is like three years from now or something.
KM: What is time, really?
MA: On that subject, we’ve talked about the technical mastery here, but formally, this is fascinating in a lot of ways. Re-reading it, I realized we’re basically getting these embedded novellas in some chapters. The Jack-Anne story is one. Then there’s the absolutely incredible saga of Jack’s dissertation.
GN: Yes! I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a long time and I think the reason I was so reluctant is that I expected dry passages about political maneuvering and bureaucratic procedure, and folks I can get that by opening a newspaper! Had I known that roughly half the book would be a doomed Civil War love story and devastating Jack-Anne love story I would have probably cracked this sucker a little earlier. Zero percent of me expected the Cass Mastern odyssey going into this book. And while I suspected that there had to be more between Jack and Anne than he initially let on, Warren is a genius for delaying the full revelation to a point where the reader absolutely must know—the Willie Stark affair—and then just smuggling in the whole novella.
KM: When I started the Jack-Anne section, my brain (devoured by editing worms) was like “CUT THIS?” But it is just proof that sometimes editors cut too much! The period sections absolutely slap and I feel like they made me far more invested in a bunch of characters instead of just knowing their names. We love a heartbreak narrative! The strangest one, I agree, is Cass Mastern. I went to read more about that section because I found it so weird and disjointed and learned a lot of people think it is a “flaw” and should be “cut.” But the whole point of it, to me, was to show all of Jack’s blindspots. Something that presumably as the narrator he is unaware of.
MA: One of the many ways this novel made me physically ill was forcing me to imagine coming across the letters of some antebellum ancestors and then learning about their really horrible and upsetting love affairs.
GN: That one in particular was very gross. I didn’t like how he talked about the fabrics.
KM: I refuse to remember this. No thank you.
GN: But you’re right that it shows Jack’s blind spots. He’s doing this intense archival research on distant ancestors and all the while is unaware of his own more … direct ancestry. Which was another highlight of the book, for me. I didn’t really catch onto what we were about to learn until Jack’s mom tells him not to go over and bother Judge Irwin at this hour. Obviously Jack does anyway. And then when the reveal landed, it really landed.
KM: I literally gasped! The drama!!! The whole book is a drama fest. There are what, like, 47 love triangles?
MA: Yeah, I often found myself having to step back and draw these little mental maps in my head to keep track of everyone’s sordid motivations.
GN: Shoutout also to a decades-old scandal involving general counsels at a power company for propelling much of the drama. Can’t believe how much drama was caused by a letter a dying old medium had held onto. It’s a testament to the power of Reporting. The Littlepaugh saga doesn’t rise to the scale of those other embedded novels but it is very involved and riveting. When the case breaks open for Jack I feel happy for him as a guy doing his job even though I know it’s actually awful for him as a person.
MA: I did like reading his in-the-weeds reporting stuff—going through newspaper archives, checking public records. And oh, what a line it gives us! “For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream. And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us.”
KM: That quote is exactly why it should be illegal for poets to write novels. They’re too good. They must be stopped.
GN: It is crazy how much there is to discuss in this book that is not named Willie Stark, but I do want to go back to one of my favorite scenes, the barbecue in Upton where he, hungover for the first time in his life, goes sicko mode on everyone in the vicinity. Duffy is pushed off stage, the boring facts and figures of his old speeches are tossed aside, and with the taste of puke still in his mouth he discovers the rhetorical style that will launch his career. And the fact that he had been this pawn placed into the gubernatorial race just to peel away votes embarrasses him, activates the fury that he will tap into later, basically makes him a viable politician. Soon enough he is swinging the meat axe all the time. It’s a scary and beautifully rendered origin story for a power trip. So I guess the “embarrassment as radicalizing moment” is another Trump commonality.
KM: Now that i think about it there is kind of a nice parallel there between Stark and Jack. Stark’s impulse is that he will be his best if laden with facts and figures. That people will appreciate and support him because he is logical. This is kind of the same shit Jack does later when he refuses to see that the real driving factor for a lot of people is emotional.
MA: Another memory omission of mine—aside from the assassination of Willie—was Sadie Burke. I didn’t remember her at all, and now I can’t believe that, because she’s just a marvelous character and in many ways, among the most important characters in the book. You have to realize you’re seeing her through the eyes of Jack, which tend to paint her as unhinged and hysterical (not a big respecter of women, Jack … RIP to Lois) and kind of ignorable, but the whole ending hinges on her. And it was so interesting to me to read a woman character maneuvering in that kind of political space.
GN: Amid all his casual misogyny, I think Jack saw Sadie as the one woman capable of duking it out with men, credits her with a lot of the Boss’s success, and admires the way she managed to make a living for herself given her origins. I also loved how she would regularly chew out Willie about his latest mistress, which seems like reputation management early in the book but, of course, takes on fatal implications later on in the book. So much of Willie’s life turned on Sadie’s read of things, and in the end, so did his death. She called the shots. She also might be the best described character in the book? I can see her very vividly even as I barely understand what is going on with Willie’s hair. It’s wet and floppy.
MA: You sort of alluded to it earlier, but it’s funny that Willie looms over this book and is the character who sticks out in the popular reader’s imagination, but was not terribly interesting to me this time around. Or at least, he’s really competing with all the other characters for our attention.
KM: I mean, he’s kind of like Gatsby, right? The character of Willie is hidden from us because we only see him through Jack’s perception of him. He’s assumed to be interesting because he is powerful, but that’s a conflation.
GN: It fits in with one of the themes of the book, which is this butterfly effect idea—that some random guy’s scheming can have widespread, generational impacts on people surrounding them. It’s the massive collateral damage of politics. Jack is constantly talking about how he feels caught up in this web of cause-and-effect, how guys like Adam want to be saints who lie outside of that web, but ultimately we’re all at the mercy of the big cats like the Boss. Whether or not they are physically in the room, they’re affecting everything we do.
MA: You cannot be excluded from this narrative.
DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! May is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick tomorrow.