This is a novel set in the 1930s about a Southern politician named Willie Stark who rises from a minor local government post to become governor of the state. It’s narrated from his right-hand man Jack Burden as he comes to terms with his place in the South while questioning the type of shady political work he does for Stark.
It’s hard to mess up a rise-from-the-ashes story but the author, Robert Penn Warren, manages to do it. The only interesting character is Stark, and if the story focused on him the work would have been better, but instead we get painfully long monologues about Burden and his pathetic love for a girl who has rejected him. There are no likeable character and no interesting subplots. The book is like an old man telling you a story that he can’t quite finish because he’s so wrapped up in irrelevant details, and many times I thought about quitting the book entirely. Less than fifty percent of the book is actual story while the rest is fluff that you have to endure. To give you an idea of what I mean, there were over 30 pages of Burden droning on about the love of his life who was getting boned by another guy.
Here is a Burden flashback (one of many) to a magical childhood moment:
I held her body to me and pressed her face back and our legs trailed down together as we rose slowly and waveringly through the blackness of the water and the silver of ascending bubbles. We rose very slowly, or at least it seemed very slowly, and I was holding my breath so long there was a pain in my chest and a whirling dizziness in my head, but the pain and the dizziness had passed the line over into a rapture like that I had had in my room the night I had first taken her to a movie and had stopped on the way home. I thought we would never reach the surface, we rose so slowly.
I saw her on Christmas, for ten days. It wasn’t like the summer. She told me she loved me and was going to marry me, and she let me go pretty far. But she wouldn’t marry me then, and she wouldn’t go the limit. We had a row about that just before she left. She had been willing to in September, but now she wouldn’t. It seemed that she was, in a way, breaking a promise, and so I got pretty mad. I told her she didn’t love me. She said she did. I wanted to know why she wouldn’t go on, then. “It’s not because I’m afraid and it’s not because I don’t love you. Oh, I do love you, Jackie, I do,” she said, “and it’s not because I’m a nasty old nicey-pants. It’s because you are the way you are, Jackie.”
But she wouldn’t say any more. So we had an awful row. I went back to State a nervous wreck. She didn’t write to me for a month. I held out about two weeks, and then began to apologize.
There was another painful flashback of another 40 pages when Burden researched a slave owner who became moral. This “symbolism” was linked to the present time and slapped across our face thereafter whenever Penn got the chance.
All The Kings Men is the type of book that would deeply impress a proletariat who only reads two books a year. They’ll labor through it for a month, and regardless if they liked it or not, will commend themselves that they read “literature” and were smarter for it, telling anyone who would listen about the feat they had just accomplished. They may be able to convince themselves of its quality since they are supposed to like it, but there’s no fooling me: this is a boring book, plain and simple.
Read More: “All The Kings Men” on Amazon