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.

Exley’s A Fan’s Notes

There are a great number of books out there that are about (at least in part) writers struggling with writing and figuring out how to live their lives. I think of books like Malamud’s The Tenants, Bukowski’s Post Office, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or virtually anything by Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. The list goes on and on. I suppose it’s no surprise, being that struggling to write and figure out how to live are what writers know most intimately.

Strangely though, as many of these as have been brought to my attention, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was completely new to me. I’d never heard of it before picking it from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books for a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for George Pelacanos.)

The funny thing is that I started hearing about this book after I decided to read it. All of a sudden, people around me were talking about A Fan’s Notes without any knowledge that I intended to read it. I hadn’t prompted the discussion; it was just happening. Maybe I’d just never noticed before, but it seemed to only come up around me after I picked up my copy.

A Fan’s Notes is a pretty intimate kind of book. Presented as a fictional memoir, a character named for the author recounts the series of failures that is his life. Raised in the shadow of his father’s local-level sports fame, the character Exley grows with a desperate need for fame. However, the longer the fame he seeks eludes him, the more he vicariously fulfills that fame need through watching a famous football player he briefly met in college. In a strange way, he feels a connection with this player:

“What is this thing with you and Gifford–or whatever his name is?” she asked.

The question took me unawares, and I did not answer her for a long time. I had never before tried to articulate what the thing was, and I was fairly sure that whatever I said would come out badly and be taken wrong. But I thought I would say something. The heavy hum of the wheels was beneath us, the darkness of the cab enshrouded us, the atmosphere seemed conducive to talk. I told her about my first year in New York, how I had this awful dream of fame, but that, unlike Gifford–who had possessed the legs and the hands and the agility, the tools of his art–I had come to New York with none of the tools of mine, writing. I told her how I tried to content myself with reverie, envisioning myself emblazoned across the back of dust jackets. I told her how I had gone each lonely Sunday to the Polo Grounds where Gifford, when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion I could escape the bleak anonymity of life.

Romantic failures, job failures, mental and alcoholic breakdowns resulting in multiple commitments to mental hospitals as well as shock treatment, the book moves back and forth across his life. For a book centering on a character who struggles even trying to find a way to live his life, A Fan’s Notes is remarkably sharp (as well as cutting) and focused in its insight. At one point, the character Exley starts a fight where he is beaten badly before running off and collapsing:

In a moment, I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I felt quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge caused me to weep very quietly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny–unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd–to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.

Given that I mentioned above how many books I’ve seen explore this theme, you might think that I found A Fan’s Notes to just be a revisit of old ground. This is not actually the case. The theme may be familiar, but Exley’s examination of it is all his own. It is ruthless and impressively crystalized. There are even quite a few moments of startling beauty inside. It may not be one of my favorite books of all time, but it is certainly a damn good one.