Book #36-All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This was an exhausting (perhaps my book per week is taking its toll), yet enjoyable read.  All the King’s Men takes us to the deep south of the 1930’s where the politics are as thick as molasses and ambition is to be secured at any cost.  An uninspired reporter becomes an unofficial PI to the governor and uncovers his own family’s demons that converge with the shenanigans of the political machine.

To say Warren is long winded would be unfair, yet there were several instances where I felt points could have been reached in a more concise manner.

The writing really was excellent and I can’t honestly say what I would edit, yet I had continual feelings that several segments could/should have ended sooner than they did.  The inclusion of another story the narrator introduces, although quite interesting, felt forced into this novel.  It was as if the author had so much to say and couldn’t help but saying it all.  Given all this criticism, Warren did manage to pull it all together in the end and tied up all loose ends rather neatly.

Sugar Boy O’Sheean is a stuttering, gun-toting, devoted to a fault chauffeur to the governor.  While sucking on the sugar cubes he keeps in his pockets, he sits in the shadows just itching to use the gun he keeps strapped under his arm.

The narrator of All the King’s Men is Jack Burden; a floundering newspaperman who, without meaning to, finds himself in the employ of the ambitious governor.  He beats himself up over an unrequited love, fights with his mother for no apparent reason and searches for the truth as though his life depended on it.  He is a likable character because he admits his many shortcomings and realizes his life has not been half bad.

Willie Stark, the governor, aka The Boss, is a larger than life figure who captures the heart of the masses with his down to earth speeches and sets out with good intentions only to get caught up in the political whirligig and eventually becomes the type of politician he once claimed unfit for public office.

I admired Adam Stanton, the boyhood friend of Jack Burden who has become a famous surgeon and is sought out by the governor.  He seeks neither fame nor fortune, but rather is content in the good of the work he can do.  A seemingly tranquil man, he becomes the catalyst for catastrophe after being goaded by those wishing to punish Willie Stark.



The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you.  He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name–Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave–which belongs to that now non-existent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.  But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night or in the middle of a crowded street said, “Gee, listen to this–‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves–‘” the Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you any more.

Something about what she was saying disturbed me, like an offstage noise or something caught out of the tail of your eye or an itch that comes when your hands are full and you can’t scratch.  I was listening to what she was saying, and it wasn’t that.  It was something else.  But I couldn’t catch what.  So I shoved it onto the back of the stove, and listened to what she was saying.

You meet somebody at the seashore on a vacation and have a wonderful time together.  Or in a corner at a party, while the glasses clink and somebody beats on a piano, you talk with a stranger whose mind seems to whet and sharpen your own and with whom a wonderful new vista of ideas is spied.  Or you share some intense or painful experience with somebody, and discover a deep communion.  Then afterward you are sure that when you meet again, the gay companion will give you the old gaiety, the brilliant stranger will stir your mind from its torpor, the sympathetic friend will solace you with the old communion of spirit.  But something happens, or almost always happens, to the gaiety, the brilliance, the communion.  You remember the individual words from the old language you spoke together , but you have forgotten the grammar.  You remember the steps of the dance, but the music isn’t playing any more.  So there you are.

I’m sure I’d enjoy the company of Mr. Warren, however, I’d be sure to find a comfy chair as once the tales began, I’d be in for a long haul.  Perhaps I’d get him to read aloud and give his true voice to those of his characters.

My rating for All the King’s Men is an 8 out of 10.

To see the entire list,  visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.




Filed under All the King's Men

2 responses to “Book #36-All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

  1. I agree that this book needed another bit of editing to make it a stone cold classic but lots of it is really, really good. I read it recently and reviewed it here, if you’re interested in another viewpoint.

    • vsudia

      Our reviews seem to be quite similar. I do agree the writing was phenomenal, and like you, much could have been left out. It was as if the author was bursting at the seams to get it all down and then didn’t have the heart to take any of it out. It’s also quite eery how history is repeating itself.

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