Thursday, 3 March 2011

All the King's Men

This is a book full of  the putrid vitality of politics and much else besides. The book is narrated by Jack Burden, a journalist who becomes the right hand man to rising political force Willie Stark (The Boss). He wrestles with the meaning of his life and the ethics of wielding power. We jump backwards and forwards in time as he tries to understand what the past has meant to him and how to divest himself of its burden.

The effort to understand is often blunt and so are many of the voices and personalities that fill the book. Some of the politics had a resonance with the General Election raging around me here in Ireland as I read. I could imagine some candidates having very similar conversations to this one between Stark and Burden.

"They didn't seem to be paying attention much tonight. Not while I was trying to explain about my tax program."
"Maybe you try to tell 'em too much. It breaks down their brain cells."
"Looks like they'd want to hear about taxes, though," he said.
"You tell 'em too much. Just tell 'em you're gonna soak the fat boys, and forget the rest of the tax stuff."

As well as blunt the book is bruising and not too many characters come out of it without being knocked around real good. It's not just a story of politics but also of family, love and secrets. The writing is muscular and original and the only thing that sometimes went against it for me was the length of a sally back into Jack Burden's past which I kept feeling could have been cut like Willie Stark's speeches.

The book is LOOSELY based on a real politician Huey P Long who was Governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression and who might have been President had he not been assassinated. His motto was 'Every Man a King'. The book asks questions about power, it's use and whether it corrupts and if it can only be wielded and retained with recourse to corruption.

It's a book that retains it's relevance and can be enjoyed not just for the great ethical struggle contained within but for some of the freshest writing I've read. I kept meaning to note down quotes but was too involved to bother. Here's one, after a quick flick through the book. Jack has just noticed his girlfriend kissing him in a new way.

"I knew right away she had picked it up from some man up in Maine that summer, some summer bastard in white flannel pants with vowels that clicked like dominoes."

Here's a clip from the film version starring Broderick Crawford.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Thanks for leaving the link to it on my blog. I added a link to your review on my review post.