GAN Quest: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

The paradox of democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Jack Burden, our narrator, tells the story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South. Along the way we learn about Jack’s life too, and how he came to be Stark’s most loyal lieutenant. And we see played out in detail the corruption at the heart of politics – how a man who starts out full of good intention and moral purpose cuts a little corner here, exerts a little pressure there, sucks up to the rich, all initially to achieve his pet projects for the benefit of his constituents; until suddenly he finds he has become the kind of crooked, manipulative, self-justifying politician he once despised and intended to destroy. It’s a marvellously American story, especially when read at a time when all the worst of American politics is out there unashamedly displaying its stinking underbelly of moral corruption to the world. But of course the themes resonate for those of us who live in other democracies, since all share the same fundamental weakness – that those who stand for office are as fallible and flawed as everyone else.

Jack starts his story by taking us back in time to three years’ earlier, in 1936, to a day when Willie and his entourage visit his father in the house where Willie grew up. The main purpose of the visit is a photo op, to show how Willie is still rooted in the community from which he sprang years before. It’s a wonderful portrait of political hypocrisy. Stark is a hard man, but a politician to his toes, able to turn on his man of the people act at will. The old house, fully modernised on the inside, has been left carefully untouched on the outside so folks wouldn’t think Willie was putting on airs. We begin to see Jack as a thinking man, philosophical, cynical and rather defeated – why has he ended up as Stark’s minion? It is on this trip that Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, a man who stands between Stark and his desire to become Senator for the state. Judge Irwin is inflexibly moral, crossing the line towards moral righteousness. But in this noir view of American politics, if you dig hard enough into anyone’s past, there’s almost certain to be something to find…

Then I was traveling through New Mexico, which is a land of total and magnificent emptiness with a little white filling station flung down on the sand like a sun-bleached cow skull by the trail, with far to the north a valiant remnant of the heroes of the Battle of Montmartre in a last bivouac wearing huaraches and hammered silver and trying to strike up conversations with Hopis on street corners. Then Arizona, which is grandeur and the slow incredulous stare of sheep, until you hit the Mojave. You cross the Mojave at night and even at night your breath rasps your gullet as though you were a sword swallower who had got hold of a hack-saw blade by mistake, and in the darkness the hunched rock and towering cactus loom at you with the shapes of a visceral, Freudian nightmare.

Then California.

The writing is excellent, stylised, intensely American, almost stream of consciousness at some points, and full of long, unique descriptions and metaphors. The chapters are long, almost novella-length, and to a degree contain separate stories within the main story. So, for example, we will go back in time to learn about how Jack and Willie met, when Jack was a young journalist covering Willie’s first failed run for Governor. We’ll see how the already cynical Jack found himself fascinated by the naive idealism of Willie, and that allows us to understand how, through all the years and despite all the corruption, Jack still sees Willie as a man who genuinely wants to improve the lives of his people. Or we’ll learn about Jack’s relationship with his four-times-married mother, still beautiful and rich, and Jack’s love for her, mingled with his resentment at all she stands for. Or we’ll go back to the time when Jack was in love with Anne Stanton, and learn how that has affected him throughout his life.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in the 1949 movie

There are really no weak points to the book as far as I’m concerned, but the chapter that tells the story of Jack’s great-uncle Cass Mastern stands out as a particularly brilliant piece of writing, worthy on its own of the Pulitzer the novel won. Cass and his brother were on the side of the Confederacy in the civil war, but where Gilbert, the elder brother, is a conscienceless slave-owner, driven by his desire for wealth and power, Cass is a man who may be flawed in more ways than one, but has a strong moral compass. Jack researched their stories for his college dissertation and it was as he came to understand them that he began to wonder who he himself is, and the fear that he is more like Gilbert than Cass haunts him. In a way, the chapter is a diversion from the main story, but in another way, it’s the heart of the book, allowing us to understand Jack’s introspectiveness and self-doubt, and why he finds Willie, a man of supreme self-belief, strangely appealing.

After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity . . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn’t the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.

Book 72 of 90

And Willie is an oddly sympathetic character to the reader too, despite his brutality, his womanising, his corruption. Like Jack, we see a man who might line his own pockets, who might give and take bribes, who might blackmail and threaten opponents, but we also see that he genuinely wants to improve life for those at the bottom – give them the hospital and schools they deserve. Perhaps he’s motivated by the narcissistic desire to be the great working-class hero, adored and revered, but at least he started out meaning to do good. But somewhere along the way he forgot the need to cajole and explain and persuade, as his growing power enabled him to achieve his ends quicker through bullying and force. And once you’ve used and abused everyone, including your family, who is there left that you can trust?

Robert Penn Warren

Truly a brilliant book which, although it has a lot to say about the political system, isn’t fundamentally about politics. It’s about how we are made and re-made throughout our lives, changed by our own choices and by the events that happen around us. Jack’s view of life is dark, almost nihilistic, in that ultimately all effort is meaningless – men may have free will, but their choices will always lead them into a downward spiral towards defeat. As a reader, a step removed from Jack’s involvement, it is yet another reminder of the truth that power corrupts, and that those who seek to rule us are usually the least fit to do so because of the very hubris that makes them want to. The paradox of democracy. This one gets my highest recommendation.

* * * * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flag

Yes, the corruption which has always mired American democracy is brilliantly dissected, and the theme is as relevant today as it was at the time of writing. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flag

Hmm, the question of power corrupting is age-old, but the noir approach to the story, with no heroes to put in opposition to Stark’s growing villainy, makes it feel fresh and original. Plus, I really want it to win, so…achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flag

Superb to the point where at some points it left me breathless, full of power and imagery, and deep insight into the motivations and humanity of the minor as well as the major characters. Achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

us flag

Geographically and in terms of the subject matter the answer might seem to be no, but the theme of corruption has always run deep through the American political system and forms a fundamental part of what makes America uniquely American – a society which values democracy and yet is utterly tribal in its loyalties even when its leaders flaunt their flaws in its face; a society whose American Dream too often veers towards nightmare. So I’m going to say yes, achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my third…

* * * * * * * * *

NB The previous winners were American Pastoral and Beloved.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS Apologies for disappearing so abruptly – my reading and writing slump have now reached epic proportions so I suspect I’ll be an irregular blogger for the foreseeable future. Hope you’re all staying well!

61 thoughts on “GAN Quest: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

  1. So glad to see you back posting, FictionFan!! I’ve missed you. And it’s good to hear that you enjoyed this as much as you did. It’s hard to write a book about politics without getting, well, political (i.e. having one agenda or the other), but this one does it. In some ways it reminds me of an old film The Candidate (directed by Michael RItchie and starring Robert Redford). A few of the same themes in it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel a sense of accomplishment for actually posting a review! 😉 Yes I always find the process of politics more interesting than books with a political agenda, and this one gets that balance perfectly. Hmm, the title of The Candidate sounds familiar but I can’t remember if I’ve seen it – I’ll look it up! I tried watching the old film version of this but it didn’t grab me the way the book did – the plot, such as it is, is probably the least interesting thing about the book, and all the philosophical musing is quite hard to portray in a film.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad to see you’re still around even if you’re not feeling able to post much, I wondered whether you had taken ill. Continue to look after yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alyson, and sorry for disappearing without a word, especially since I hate when other people do that so I have no excuse. I seem to have become a master of procrastination at the moment, and have been intending to start posting again every day for weeks, but just don’t seem to have had the energy to do it. Hope you’ve managed to stay safe through the latest spike.


  3. Well,I was wondering what happened to you (and hoping you hadn’t become the latest to contract COVID!) Glad it was nothing too serious — and we all can use a wee break now and then. This sounds like a good one to add to my ever-growing list. Especially since it’s not really about politics!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m sorry for disappearing like that – I really hadn’t intended to take a break at all but one day led to the next… and the next…! I liked the way he managed to avoid politics and stick to the political system – can’t be bothered with books that have too strong a political message.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry to hear about the reading and writing slump, but good to have you back even if it’s just for a short visit. It sounds like an interesting book and the themes certainly resonates. As you say, they are not specific for politicians, you see the same in all spheres of life, where some sort of power / money can be achieved. Oops, that sounded like I am quite disillusioned about the human race. I haven’t reached that stage – yet 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. How good to see you back again!! And how interesting that this is the book with which you’ve returned. It’s supposed to be loosely based on the life of Huey P. Long. I’ve never read it and was just looking at it yesterday, trying to decide if I wanted to read it or a biography of Long. Maybe I should read both. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – sorry for disappearing without a word! Yes, I believe it is but I had never heard of Huey P Long so the comparison was lost on me. Funnily enough I was thinking I’d quite like to read a biography of him too as a sort of companion piece, so please let me know if you find a good one. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • He wrote an autobiography which is supposed to be really good: “Every Man a King”. I think the definitive biography is considered to be “Huey Long” by T. Harry Williams, but coming in at almost 1000 pages, I’m leaning more toward the more recent biography by Richard D. White, “Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long”.

        Louisiana has had more than its share of “colorful” politicians. Many would rank Long as one of the most corrupt, but honestly, some would tell you he did a great deal of good for the state and might have done the same for the country had he ever been elected president. Once I’m ready to deal with politics again (if ever!), I might try these.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The White one looks a more manageable size, and it’s got very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site – I’ve stuck it on the wishlist. Thanks!

          Yes, that sounds very like the Willie Stark in the book – he actually did things for the people unlike most politicians, although the ways he went about it were corrupt. That’s why I still had some sympathy for him despite it all. In real life I think we expect far too much of our politicians – not just to do a great job but to be total saints while they do it. Not sure why they should be when the rest of us aren’t! Not that I’m suggesting corruption is OK, but we treat our politicians so badly now I can’t imagine why any good people would take on the job…

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the sound of this, a different type of writing to explore and the depth of characterisation you describe make it a must read and your conclusion about the paradox of democracy is spot on (although a depressing thought). I missed you and am so glad you’re back however sporadically.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great review! I read this book a l-o-n-g time ago, and I think it’s time for a re-read. Quick question: is there a section in the book, anywhere, that describes a sort of global group of shadowing characters who pull the economic strings behind the scenes, creating wars or trade alliances, for their own benefit?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Hmm, it’s actually several months since I read it now, but I don’t remember anything like that in it. In fact it was a very “local” book – even Washington didn’t get mentioned much. It was all about state politics. Are you maybe confusing it with Trump’s twitter feed? 😉


  8. I’m betting on All the King’s Men being your book of the year!
    I’m glad you’re around and about again, even if you won’t be blogging regularly for a while. Hoping you’re enjoying the break, eating some chocolate and teasing Tommy and Tuppence with the wrappers while reading for fun – not feeling as if you have to review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • D’you know, I don’t usually pick classics or vintage re-releases as the Book of the Year, but this year that’s nearly all I’ve read! I’m abandoning the awards this year because I just haven’t read enough new releases, but I’ll probably do a top 5 or 10, and this will definitely be up there!

      Aw, thanks, Rose! Haha, T&T are getting old now – they spend about 99% of their time sleeping, and I’m pretty much following their example since they both seem quite contented on it! 😉 And yes, I’m trying not to stress about writing reviews…!! 🤯

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This sounds like an amazing book and worthy of the GAN win – I was thinking as I saw the title we haven’t seen any of these for a while, so I’m glad it was a good one. And hope we see you more regularly, of course, and that all slumps are eliminated soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t really been doing the GAN Quest for a while – too many other challenges ongoing! – but this one seemed so perfect for the title I had to revive it. Thank you – I’m hoping the vaccine means we can all get back to some kind of normality soon. 😀


  10. Nice to see you blogging again FF! This book sounds good, and I’m not surprised you enjoyed it, especially with everything going on in the world, especially in the US. I wonder if by reading a book like this, our empathy is increased for politicians? People’s hate of politics and politicians is a bit scary sometimes, the fact that it may drive people to incite violence against someone who disagrees with them politically. It sounds like this book is a nice reminder that we’re all just human in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fantastic review, FF. I’ve never read this but I think I should.

    Also, you’d be proud… I ordered myself a box of fancy chocolates and it came yesterday! I know we’re supposed to be giving gifts to others this time of year, but 2020 requires extra self-care! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Laila – a great book, though maybe with all the politics in the US at the moment, you should wait a bit… 😉

      Haha, I’m very proud of you! My gift-buying philosophy has always been “One for you, one for me”… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Although this one is set in the political world, there’s no political tub-thumping – he’s not got a political agenda as far as I could see. It’s much more about how humans behave, and how easy it is to become mired in corruption. I do hope you enjoy it! The writing is wonderful… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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