Author: Robert Penn Warren
Length: 661 pages
Source: Local Library
Award: Pulitzer Prize
Challenges: 1930's Mini Challenge, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Personal Enjoyment Factor: 5/5
"The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can't know. He can't know whether knowledge will save him or kill him."
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one that wowed me. The writing gave me an adrenaline rush, and pleasure not unlike the ecstasy of deliberately savoring a Godiva truffle. (Yikes, I'm making my mouth water.)
Chocolate similes aside, the story focuses mainly on two men: Willie Stark, an idealistic, but simple lawyer turned corrupt politician in 1930's Louisiana, and Jack Burden, the guy who does much of his dirty work for him--digging into the past to uncover information to use against his political enemies. As Stark satisfies his lust for power, Burden is searching for knowledge and truth--sometimes passively, sometimes actively--not only about the people he is investigating, but about the whole meaning (or lack thereof) of life and morality and love and responsibility and identity.
For me, Jack Burden's philosophical ramblings were the most satisfying part of the book, but Warren knows just when to pull out and get back to the story, which was compelling. The characters were vividly drawn and memorable. There's a touch of melodrama here and there, but it has just the perfect effect. I humbly proclaim All the King's Men a masterpiece. Modern Library was not quite as enthusiastic as me--they named it the 36th best English-language novel of the 20th century. Not bad, but I'd gladly kick one out of the top ten and replace it with this one. Like Ulysses or Sons and Lovers. I would not be sad to see them go. They're more like brussels sprouts, not gourmet candy.
Here's a chocolate sample, or at least food for thought:
"Perhaps the only answer, I thought then, was that by the time we understand the pattern we are in, the definition we are making for ourselves, it is too late to break out of the box. We can only live in terms of the definition, like the prisoner in the cage in which he cannot lie or stand or sit, hung up in justice to be viewed by the populace. Yet the definition we have made of ourselves is ourselves. To break out of it, we must make a new self. But how can the self make a new self when the selfness which it is, is only the substance from which the new self can be made?"
I'm still digesting that one.
For a collection of reviews of other books about the 1930's, check out this post at Things Mean A Lot.