All the King’s Men was the first book in the reading project that I was looking forward to reading with some anticipation. I enjoy political thrillers in my movie choices, and while this book was nothing like an Air Force One or Manchurian Candidate, it was a good primer on basic human struggles as seen through political intrigue.
The focus of the novel is Willie Stark, governor of a southern state, and modeled on the real-life Louisiana governor and later US Senator Huey P. Long. The narrator is Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter covering Stark’s early career before becoming the governor’s right-hand man after his election. Through the various common relationships of both Stark and Burden, author Robert Penn Warren explores the human condition, especially the themes of sin and guilt, idealism and expediency, justice and revenge, means and ends, and how a single choice can redirect the lives of both saints and sinners.
Due to the nature of the story, with its sudden revelations and surprise endings, I won’t give away the plot. But suffice it to say that the lives of each character tend to go from good to bad; this story is a tragedy, not a comedy. From political blackmail to outright bribery of high officials, from secret Civil War-era marital affairs to present-day murders, the story covers the bases of human depravity. But none of the characters are outright evil. Instead, they are ordinary people confronted with complex choices that, when they choose wrong, lead down the path of destruction.
All the King’s Men (for which the Nixon-focused All the President’s Men is a clear homage) is not a happy story, but classics seldom are. Instead, it is a case study in how, when someone insists that ends justify means, the means quickly become a destructive, insatiable monster.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.