by Robert Penn Warren
ALL THE KING'S MEN (464 pp.)— Robert Penn Warren — Harcourt, Brace.
This novel tells what was behind the show in a southern state like Louisiana with a governor like Huey Long. It is a tough, triumphant novel.
The narrator is Jack Burden, a newspaperman and an angry fellow full of the sardonic lingo of the pressroom. The story he unreels with a series of flashbacks and asides is the story of Willie Stark, a poor farmer's awkward, hulking son from Mason City. Willie got his political start at home as county treasurer. He was honest, and that was why a Democratic faction in the state picked him up in the backwoods in 1926 and ran him in the primary for governor.
They ran him as a dummy to split the cocklebur vote for the opposing faction; but Willie didn't know this. Willie thought the Lord was calling him to save the state and so did his wife, Lucy, who had been a schoolteacher and didn't favor drinking. Willie was pure and believed in his backers. He believed in the people, who repaid his faith by dozing through his well-reasoned speeches. Then Willie found out that he had been a sap and a sucker.
No Party, just Willie. This discovery in the end caused woe to many men. For there was a power in Willie Stark, the country lawyer. Reporter Burden, who had covered his phony campaign and seen him broken open by it, saw him again four years later after the primary in 1930. "But it wasn't a primary. It was hell among the yearlings and the Charge of the Light Brigade and Saturday night in the back room of Casey's saloon rolled into one, and when the smoke cleared away not a picture still hung on the wall. And there wasn't any Democratic party. There was just Willie, with his hair in his eyes and his shirt sticking to his stomach with sweat. And he had a meat ax in his hand and was screaming for blood."
Then Jack Burden became a sort of confidential agent to Governor Willie Stark, who gave him research jobs on actual or potential enemies. Jack rode around in the Boss's Cadillac, chauffeured by Sugar-Boy, the little gunman. The Boss built the roads and the schools he had promised to his fellow hicks; he taxed the rich to pay for them. The Boss had to do other things to get and keep what he wanted. Burden got a long lesson in power and what happens to people who have it.
The Overall View. For a long time Jack Burden's watchful eye for what happens was uncomplicated by any attitudes about it. But finally the facts began to run together in a tantalizing, ominous way. This was about the time the Boss put Jack to digging up dirt on Judge Irwin, who lived at Burden's Landing, in a beautiful house near the beautiful houses where Jack and his friends Adam and Anne Stanton had grown up. The Judge, tall and straight and yellow-eyed, had taught Jack how to shoot ducks when he was a boy and had read history to him.
Jack Burden did a thoroughly successful job on Judge Irwin but he did not explode the charge until Stark's son, Tom, got a girl into trouble and political enemies started to use this against Willie. When the charge did go off, it uncovered some strange relationships (and some unnecessary melodrama). Jack's mother and his friends, Adam and Anne Stanton, and a lot of others are drawn into the vortex of events that is the swift and punishing, tragic and surprising last half of this book. It is climaxed by the inevitable assassination of Willie Stark in a corridor of the Capitol.
Robert Penn Warren, 41, onetime Rhodes Scholar and managing editor of the defunct Southern Review, has written two other novels, neither so good as this, and some first-rate poetry. In all his writing, even at its slickest—and some of this novel is pretty slick—there is a sense of doom and blood on the moon that Warren has gradually shifted into religious terms. Though the title of this book comes from a nursery rhyme, its epigraph comes from a passage in Dante's Purgatorio: "By curse of theirs man is not so lost, that eternal love may not return, so long as hope retaineth aught of green."