Wednesday, November 29, 2023

83. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Once again, I cannot remember who recommended this book to me.  I was quite looking forward to it as it appeared to be both an exploration of corruption and a political machine in the south and also a literary masterpiece.  It won the Pulitzer.  Well, unfortunately it sucked.  This is quite likely the worst book of the year for me (I need to go back and review as there were a few not good books in 2023 for me) and definitely going on my list of top 10 worst of all-time.  I was already nervous when I flipped through it when debating whether or not to read it a few times and seeing all the run-on sentences.  Once, I actually started, I realized quickly that I was in for a real slog.

The principle issue is the writing style.  I don't know what tradition this comes out of and I did read that it was originally intended as an epic poem.  I'm sorry but endless run-on sentences and divergences barfing out words to try and capture a feeling is not poetry.  This was just self-indulgence.  Why use one or two adjectives, when you can use five!  I appreciate that this is partly a question of taste and there is not a definite right or wrong of short versus long sentences.  I was brought up in the age of Strunk & White and so short, declarative sentences is drilled into my brain.  Still, I love the rich, elongated prose of Trollope and George Eliot. This was just slogging.  Each time I turned a page, I prayed that we would be getting past another endless digression that had nothing to do with the story (if there was one, more on that later) and desperately needed an editor to cull away the fat.  There were some interesting ideas and some strong imagery here and there, but it was all buried under so many useless words that they were stripped of any power.

I could have excused the prose style if underneath it there was something more solid, but sadly much worse than the prose, the very foundation of the book is weak and inconsistent.  Is it a story of the rise of a powerful machine politician, the "Boss" Willie Stark, in the South as it seems to be from the name and the cover and the beginning?  No, because he just skips the entire part where he goes from hard-working naive country bumpkin to cynical, brutal Boss.  Is it about the evolution of the protagonist, Jack Burden (get it "Burden") who comes from a privileged family and slacks his way to being the Boss's fixer?  Maybe, sort of except for the guy doesn't really change or do anything but take orders until the very, very end where he has some sort of epiphany in the last few pages which has little resonance and is just pat.

I was even willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, until the ending. I get that it is sort of based on the real life of Huey Long who was assassinated. The problem here is that the killing is done based entirely on two cheap motivational tropes for character that I hate the worst in any narrative: miscommunication and excessive moral outrage (and in this case to really make it terrible, it's a brother who is upset because he thinks his sister is a whore so we have stupid simplistic sexual ethics as a factor as well). It's just a completely fabricated device I guess to re-enact the real history but felt more like a manipulative way to try and wrap up a narrative of which he had clearly no idea where it was going or what it was about.

Robert Penn Warren seemed like a decent guy and I am pretty ignorant about Southern American literature so could be that I am missing some crucial elements.  As a reader, though, this to me is the worst kind of example of American pretentiousness without the real substance and discipline that makes truly great literature.  The good thing about reading this, though, is that it has really got me jazzed about moving on to something better and has thus further spurred my reading motivation!

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