All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

I’ve talked before about books famous enough that I was familiar with what was inside even if I hadn’t read them. Sometimes they are just as I imagined from all I’ve heard, but sometimes they are completely different. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren was somewhere in between, both same and different. There was a lot I knew would be there, but there was something harder to hold exactly, harder to summarize precisely, that made it a better book than I expected.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Judy Budnitz, 4th for James Lee Burke, 7th for Robb Forman Dew, 5th for Donald Harington, and 1st for George Pelacanos.)

I knew that All the King’s Men was about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on the historical figure of Huey “Kingfish” Long, as seen through the eyes of a man who works with Stark (Jack Burden). Stark becomes corrupt in his zeal against corruption, and Burden has his own issues with this…both with Stark and apart.

I heard at one point that the basis for some of this book in the career of Huey Long got in the way a tiny bit of considering this work purely as a novel. It’s good then that the only awareness I have with Long is through All the King’s Men. He no longer overshadows and I can just see the book for what it is. If anything, Long for me is only defined by what I can imagine from this book.

It isn’t just a simple tale of good intentions getting corrupted. After all, Burden does get corrupted some by his work with Stark…but he was also one of the ones to help corrupt Stark to begin with. When it came down to it, Burden he seemed to still be around for the good that Stark wanted to do.

However, though Stark believes that there is only bad around from which to make good, this can result in a rot that ends up with no good having been done. It’s complicated, but perhaps inescapable. After all, what else is there to work with? Still, that’s the political side of the novel. There’s more there, much more.

You was the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought: It’s coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see when you open it and know too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wasn’t to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.

You might not think the above quote really shows what I’ve been discussing above, and maybe it really doesn’t. The support for what I’ve been talking about above is all in the facts of the book, as opposed to the truth…and I’m more interested in the truth (though that isn’t something I can precisely state). The facts are all there in All the King’s Men for you to find if that’s the important part for you. The important part for me is something more ethereal, of which the above is a wonderful example.

That’s kind of weird, I know. Still, this is how I felt like reviewing All the King’s Men, the part that interested me more…the less familiar part despite everything I’d already heard.

The prose in All the King’s Men is earthy and gratifying at the same time that it grapples with higher soaring themes inescapably bound up with the muck of filth. It’s melancholy and sad in a way, and softly triumphant in others. At the end it lives up to a truth that is satisfying, even if it admits things we don’t necessarily want to hear. I don’t know about all time favorite, but All the King’s Men is very good.

“The only thing that would be different would be you”

This week, I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’ll explain my title for this blog after I get the obligatory part of this post over. (Which by saying obligatory makes it sound as if I don’t like it, but I actually find it fascinating which authors pick which books).

The authors that listed Catcher in the Rye in their top ten are Bebe Moore Campbell, Carl Hiassen, Alice Hoffman and Arthur Golden.

The quote above comes from a section of the novel where Holden Caulfield (the main character, a disenchanted 16 year old in the middle of a breakdown psychotic episode) is ruminating about the Natural History Museum in NYC.

“Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a horrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way–I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

I picked this quote to title the blog and start the blog post with because I think with certain books it holds true. When I texted Dave to see if he was okay with me blogging Catcher in the Rye and said I had assumed he had read it, he said “many times”. Now, unlike me, I actually know of very few books Dave has reread (maybe there’s a lot and he just doesn’t talk about them 😛 ). And then I realized, I had read it once while still in school and then had actually reread it when I was student teaching because I -taught- it. This led me to think on different times I’ve heard people talking about Catcher in the Rye. And the thing I realized, is that it’s a book that is often reread. Which can also be said about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Those of us that reread books know the truth of the quote above. When you reread a book, nothing in it has changed. Every word is the exact same as the last time. Every word is in the exact same place. Every paragraph begins and ends in the same exact way. What’s different is you. You’ve changed. So, maybe this time reading Catcher in the Rye, you notice the relationship between Holden and his little sister Phoebe more (it’s actually while looking for Phoebe that Holden ends up outside of the museum and begins the above train of thought), but the last time you read it, you focused on Holden’s meeting with a prostitute and the subsequent beating by a busboy named Maurice. Maybe you feel achingly sad this time for Holden as you notice him grasping for straw after straw while beginning to spiral, but last time you were just frustrated with him and wanted to yell at him to grow up already, for fuck’s sake.

This is also true with books you maybe begin to read and just can’t get into. It took me four tries over the course of a decade to finish Anna Karenina, and I ended up loving it. But I wasn’t able to complete it until the 4th try. For a more modern example of this, the first time I read Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (quite different than his normal novels) I couldn’t finish it, which is bizarre for me and a Stephen King book. Two years later, I picked it up and read it, then listened to it and about five years after that, reread it. I loved it every time.

So, this blog post has actually turned more into a rumination about reading and less of a post about Catcher in the Rye. I recommend reading it. Even if you read it in high school, reread it. Remember two things when you do however. 1. Holden is a teenager, as such, he thinks like a teenager and talks like a teenager. 2. Remember, he is having a breakdown of some sort, so not only thinks and talks like a teen, but thinks and talks like a person in the midst of an episode.

I do like what he has to say about life, at least on my darker days I do.

“That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose”.

Now go reread a book. Any book.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

At the start, those unfamiliar with The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead should get any “To Catch a Predator” type associations with the title out of their head. It isn’t meant in that kind of way at all. No one else may have been thinking that, but I kept thinking it any time I picked the book up, so I thought we’d start out by curing that potential misconception. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is about a father who loves his children and the doom that is inherent within the dysfunction of his family.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Robb Forman Dew, 9th for Jonathan Franzen, and 3rd for Jonathan Lethem.)

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead stars Sam and his wife Henny, as well as an entirely too large brood of children. Sam is optimistic and intelligent, but he’s a goof…particularly with his kids (whom he loves and can’t get enough of):

“Loobyloo! Loo-oobyloo! Loozy! Tea!”

Although Louisa did not answer she was at that moment crawling soundlessly out of bed. She heard him urging Evie, “Go on, Womey, call her Loozy.”

“No, Taddy, she doesn’t like it.”

“Go on, when I tahzoo [tells you].”

“No Taddy, she can hear.”

“Loo-hoozy! Loozy! Tea-heehee!”

Out of the tail of her eye Evelyn saw Louisa flash across the landing to the stairs. “She went,” she chanted soothingly, “she went.”

“This Sunday-Funday has come a long way,” said Sam softly: “it’s been coming to us, all day yesterday, all night from the mid-Pacific, from Peking, the Himalayas, from the fishing grounds of the old Leni Lenapes and the deeps of the drowned Susquehanna, over the pond pine ragged in the peat and the lily swamps of Anacostia, by scaffolded marbles and time-bloodied weatherboard, northeast, northwest, Washington Circle, Truxton Circle, Sheridan Circle to Rock Creek and the blunt shoulders of our Georgetown. And what does he find there this morning as every morning, in the midst of the slops, but Tohoga House, the little shanty of Gulliver Sam’s Lilliputian Pollitry­–Gulliver Sam, Mrs. Gulliver Henny, Lugubrious Louisa, whose head is bloody but unbowed, Ernest the calculator, Little-Womey–” Evie laughed. “–Saul and Sam the boy-twins and Thomas-snowshoe-eye, all suntropes that he come galloping to see.”

Sam has all his ideas and his enthusiasm, but he just can’t see when it doesn’t all work. He’s an eternal child trying to raise children, and doing it badly.

His wife, Henny, on the other hand, is a bitter realist. Formerly from money, she runs up debts everywhere but is afraid to let Sam know. She hates him, hates her life, hates everything. She constantly threatens to kill all of her children and herself. Sam too.

“You ought to have had a man to make you wash floors and kick you in the belly when you didn’t hurry up for him,” said Henny with all the hate of a dozen years. “I’m as rotten as she is–I’ve had men too–I’ve gone trailing my draggletail in all sorts of low dives–I’ve taken money from a man to keep his children–I’m a cheat and a liar and a dupe and a weak idiot and there’s nothing too low for me, but I’m still ‘mountains high’ above you and your sickly fawning brother who never grew up–I’m better than you who go to church and him who is too good to go to church, because I’ve done everything. I’ve been dirty and low and done things you’re both too stupid and too cowardly to do, but however low I am, I’m not so filthy crawling in the stench of the butter, I haven’t got a heart of stone, I don’t sniff, sniff, sniff when I see a streetwalker with a ragged blouse, too good to know what she is: I Hate her but I hate myself. I’m sick of the good ones; I’m sick of that stupid staring idiot standing goggling at me who’s going to be as good as you are; nothing’s too good for you, nothing’s too bad for me; I’ll go and walk the streets with that poor miserable brat sister of yours–we’ll both get something to eat and some men to be decent to us, instead of loudmouthed husbands and sisters who want to strangle us–that’s what you said, that’s what you said, you can never go back on that, and in that your whole black cruel cold heart came out of you and you tried to strike her down with it, like a stone as he’d like to strike me down when he gets all he can out of me–and I know you both, I know you all–she’s the only decent one and that’s because she’s like me–no good–good because she’s no good–take your eyes off me, you staring idiot, get out of here, you filthy child–tell your daughter to get out of here–I can’t stand it–” Henny could say no more but began to scream and then fell to the floor, bumping her head hard.

Sam lives his life as he wants to see it, regardless of how it is. He has too many children and is too big on ideals to worry about providing enough for them. Henny is full of hatred and they fight constantly, putting the children in between. Sam browbeats Henny, Henny browbeats Sam, and they both crush their children. It’s a mess.

The Man Who Loved Childrenis a delightfully rich novel, jammed with weird characters set against each other as much as possibly can be. You know it’s all going to go wrong, you just aren’t sure which way until the end. At that point, it’s the only way it could have gone.

I love the vigor and originality in some of the dialogue too, particularly Sam the father. He’s a great one to follow in a book, but I’m sure I’d hate him in real life.

I’m surprised I’d never heard of The Man Who Loved Children before. It’s quite good and I think more people should read it. I don’t know about putting it on my all-time best list, but I’m definitely glad I finally got a chance to read it.

Rabbit At Rest–John Updike

Well. I finally have read the last book in the Rabbit quartet by Updike. You can see the post where I read Rabbit Run, the first book here. You can see the post for Rabbit Redux, the second book, here. You can see the post for Rabbit is Rich, the third book, here.

First off, for those of you here to read more of my Rabbit rantings, this might be a slightly disappointing blog post. While I was still not overly fond of Rabbit, something about him had softened so something about myself softened as well. Once that did, I was able to really, finally, appreciate why people rave about the Rabbit books. Updike is amazing in Rabbit at Rest. I’m not going to go back and try to read the others with this realization, as I don’t care to spend any more time with Rabbit Angstrom. But! I can see better now the reasons.

So, this post will probably be more about Updike and his writing than my hatred for that asshole, Rabbit Angstrom.

Each Rabbit book takes place approximately a decade after the last one. So, this one is taking place in the 1988/1989 realm. Updike does an amazing job of not only capturing Rabbit’s life in here but the life of the nation and the world. AIDS was becoming a big scare at this point in history, and references to it are all around.

“Why is his nose always running? Harry has read somewhere, maybe People on the death of Rock Hudson, that that’s one of the first signs of AIDS.”

“Being so close to, you know, the barn. The reason I ask, I had a touch of heart trouble down in Florida and still can’t get used to it, how close I came. I mean, most of the time it seems unreal, I’m me, and all around me everything is piddling along as normal, and then suddenly at night, when I wake up needing to take a leak, or in the middle of a TV show that’s sillier than hell, it hits me, and wow. The bottom falls right out. I want to crawl back into my parents but they’re dead already.”
Lyle’s puffy lips tremble, or seem to, as he puzzles out this new turn the conversation has taken. “You come to terms with it,” he says. “Everybody dies.”
“But some sooner than others, huh?”
A spasm of indignation animates Lyle. “They’re developing new drugs. All the time. The French. The Chinese. Trichosanthin, TIBO derivatives. Eventually the FDA will have to let them in, even if they are a bunch of Reaganite fascist homophobes who wouldn’t mind seeing us all dead. It’s a question of hanging on. I have hope.”
(a conversation between him and his son’s accountant at the car lot, who is dying of AIDS).

You can almost read this like a historical account of the late 80s. Updike, through Rabbit, gives us a lens on exactly what was happening during this time. Fashion trends, like the shoulder pads for women, tv shows (his granddaughter is a constant channel surfer) including how he hates Roseanne, historical events even if they happened a few years before the time frame of the book (Rabbit muses on the Challenger accident at some point).

I actually found this book compelling and very readable.

However! Do not be fooled into thinking that Rabbit has redeemed himself. He still thinks of Janice, his wife as “that mutt”, he is still hypercritical of his son Nelson. He breaks things off with a woman he’s had an affair with for years, who later dies and can’t even fake to her husband that he loved her. He sleeps with his daughter in law, Nelson’s wife. His casual racism is always right there, in the open.

But, age has softened him and made him too tired to be truly offensive. He’s more concerned now with where his next processed food fix is coming from than whether he wants to have sex with that woman or that one. When he does have a stirring of desire, it’s now like it’s almost observations made from habit with no real desire behind them.

Then, he has a heart attack. So, he gets treated for it and is going along, still stuffing his face with fatty foods and drinking beers.

Then, he finally starts taking care of himself. By this point, he has finally done what he started to do in book 1. He has run away from his family. Not completely, as he has run away to the Florida condo that they winter at and has told them where he has gone. But for him, it was the first time he got that far, in 40 years.

Then, well, there are regrets all around. Except on Rabbit’s part.

Try reading the first one, if you can get past Rabbit’s asshole status in that one, then maybe you can stick it out to this one and end the series with the best book of the quartet in my opinion.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled his sprawling serial novel Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” (in the collected form, apparently as a serial it appeared with a different subtitle. I don’t know about that. Seems like there are two to me, but maybe Thackeray couldn’t regard them as such due to conventions at the time.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for John Banville and 1st for Thomas Mallon.)

After all, Vanity Fair mainly follows two women (though it is true that much is what happens to them as opposed to what they do, so maybe that’s where the no hero thing comes in), Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp, and the various friends and family that surround them. Having gone to school together, Amelia is a sweet twit who comes from a good and established family whereas Becky is a conniving orphan. Though Thackeray seems to be painting Amelia as good on the surface and Becky as bad, it really seems like he is really much more ambiguous on the pair.

But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; but her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary-bird; or over a mouse, that the cat haply had seized upon; or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid; and as for saying an unkind word to her, were any persons hard-hearted enough to do so–why, so much the worse for them. Even Miss Pinkerton, that austere and godlike woman, ceased scolding her after the first time, and though she no more comprehended sensibility than she did Algebra, gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her.

*****

For it may be remarked in the course of this little conversation (which took place as the coach rolled along lazily by the river side) that though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude, or such as would be put forward by persons of a kind and placable disposition. Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody; nor can it be expected that twenty-four young ladies should all be as amiable as the heroine of this work, Miss Sedley (whom we have selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all, otherwise what on earth was to have prevented us from putting up Miss Swartz, or Miss Crump, or Miss Hopkins, as heroine in her place!) it could not be expected that every one should be of the humble and gentle temper of Miss Amelia Sedley; should take every opportunity to vanquish Rebecca’s hard-heartedness and ill-humour; and, by a thousand kind words and offices, overcome, for once at least, her hostility to her kind.

I mean, he seems softhearted toward Amelia for her goodness, but seems to regard her as a useless ninny. At the same time, he seems to decry Becky for her ruthlessness, but he seems to understand that there was nothing else she could really do as an independent woman in that time and place in the world. Society as a whole he seems to regard as foolish.

There is certainly no complete clarity in what happens to the women, unlike other English novels of the time period. Their fortunes oscillate over time. One does good while the other suffers, and then they reverse. Really, neither do too bad.

Both get married, both against wishes of various families. The Napoleonic wars muddle things up a bit. Fortunes are made, fortunes are lost, all kind of what you expect in a sprawling serialized novel.

For a book of this kind, I actually found Vanity Fair a great deal more readable than I expected. I was delighted by how the morality was much more complex and hidden than in other contemporaries. I certainly can’t fault the scope or the quality of depiction. I heard there were come continuity problems since the immense book was done as a serial, but I didn’t notice any of that. I’m not completely wild for Vanity Fair, but it was well worth my time.