WARNING: Plot spoiler
This book might just deserve the recognition of being considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It is a masterpiece in every way—masterful in its style, execution, breadth, depth, “realism,” and even plot—conceived and bequeathed to us in the form of a novel by one of America’s master poets. It is a historical novel, not just in the sense of its having taken place in the past, but in the sense that one feels like one is living history—both grand, sweeping history, as well as intimate, personal history—when one is reading it.
All the King’s Men was famously inspired by the life of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, though Robert Penn Warren was clear in his assertion that he did not consider his fictional creation and the real-life governor one and the same. The story follows the political rise of Willie Stark, a back-country lawyer turned powerful demagogue whose oratorical skills earn him the love of the people. His administration, however, is notoriously corrupt—blackmail and bribery are the common business of the day—and the machine runs along, in part smoothly oiled by one Jack Burden, the narrator of the story and the man who digs up the dirt on Willie’s opponents. It is a brilliant move on Warren’s part to have Willie’s “shadow” narrate this book. Jack is privy to more information than any other character—he’s the thread that binds them all together—and the effect is one of virtual omniscience, even when Jack Burden isn’t or couldn’t have been present. He is also, more formally, a student of history, though he literally walks out on his Ph.D dissertation one day, and never files for his degree.
The writing is nothing short of magnificent, the language sultry and delicious.
But the Millet place wasn’t like the hospital. It didn’t look at all like a hospital, I discovered when I turned off the highway twenty-five miles out of the city and tooled gently up the drive under the magnificent groining of the century-old live oaks whose boughs met above the avenue and dripped stalactites of moss to make a green, aqueous gloom like a cavern. Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles—draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them—stared out at the passer-by with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious unamazement of cattle. The gaze of those marble eyes must have been the first stage in the treatment the neurotic got when he came out to the sanitorium. It must have been like smearing a cool unguent of time on the hot pustule and dry itch of the soul.
That excerpt partially describes the entrance to the Millet Sanitorium, where Sadie Burke has sent herself to recuperate after everything has gone down. It is emblematic of the power of Warren’s language; his words ooze the inevitable slow pace of time, the towering power of history and its many muscular branches. It is poetry describing everyone’s march towards death—the poetry of history, by which we resurrect things.
In the end, this long, gorgeous poem is really a tragedy. The stage is covered with bloody bodies by its conclusion, discoveries are made, lives are ruined, babies are born into new lives already ruined by the past. The stories (for really, there are many) gallop toward their horrible end points all along, but after Judge Irwin’s suicide, the words transport characters in an avalanche toward their doom. Something changes at that point; text and characters unravel. There is no other way—people will pay for history, their own as well as others’. Mrs. Burden is the one who sums it all up so nicely at the end, in a pronouncement that’s deceptively simple.
“I couldn’t,” she said. “Because everything was a mess. Everything had always been a mess.” Her hands twisted and tore the handkerchief she held before her at the level of her waist. “Oh, Jack,” she cried out, “it had always been a mess.”