All the King's Men by Robert Warren Penn
All the King’s Men is the story of Jack Burden, the political right-hand man of the governor of Louisiana (though I actually don’t think the name of the state is ever mentioned), Willie Stark. When you pick up the book and look at the dust jacket it will describe the novel as being the story of Willie Stark, a character based on the actual real-life governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long. However this is misleading for two reasons: first because, as I said, this book is really more about Jack Burden and only peripherally about the governor; and second because while Warren did not deny that Long was an inspiration for Willie Stark, he was quoted as saying “For better or worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long. Willie was only himself…”
Jack Burden starts off his “career” (I put career in quotes because he is the kind of person that seems to just never know what he wanted to do and just aimlessly drifted, until he found Willie) as a journalist who has a chance meeting with Stark as Stark was on his way up the political food chain. It is obvious he has some great ideas to shake up the state, and at that point in time he seems to have a good head on his shoulders. Jump ahead a bit later and Stark is running for governor only to find that he has been placed on the ticket by other greedy politicians only to split the vote. He’s been had. He’s a sap. Thus begins his meltdown…yet also his rise. Before he had been talking about all of his fantastic ideas to help the little people, the hicks, the rednecks, but for some reason he had not been able to speak to the common man in a way that they could understand. But now all bets were off. He would put all his cards on the table. Burden witnesses all this and the “Boss,” as they soon begin to call him, is born.
Throughout all of Willie’s rise, in which the timeline jumps around quite a bit, we hear the story of Jack’s life. His problems with his father that he does not like. His distant but loving mother. The girl that got away. His dissertation he never completed. This is what I mean when I say it’s really a story about Jack Burden. These tales make up about 90% of the book. And it’s a very long book (over 650 pages). For instance, the dissertation that he ended up just walking away from when it was nearly complete…Warren dedicated a whole chapter to this subject, (which I personally found irrelevant to the entire story) and, I want to say, it took up nearly 70 pages (maybe more).
The most interesting parts of the novel, by far, were those that included Stark. Especially when he was speaking. Warren had a brilliant gift for capturing dialogue. And he gave Stark a remarkable talent for being able to relate to the common folk. I could see how this corrupt politician won over the masses. But, as I said, this was unfortunately not the majority of the story, not even close. I started out the read entirely captivated, as the opening is a scene wherein the “Boss” pulls into a small town and gives an impromptu speech to a crowd of onlookers. But after the first 200 pages it lulled very quickly as it was clear this was the Jack Burden Story and not what I was hoping for. Thankfully the last 100 pages or so sped up again and were very entertaining, but it’s certainly a shame when you start a book thinking it could become a possible favorite and then it disappoints like this.