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