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 Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

I have to admit, the title alone of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz piques my interest. Even before I knew what it was about, I was interested. Even better, the strange blend of the real and fantastic is well suited for what I expected from this wonderful title. I didn’t expect one thing and get another.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Judy Budnitz.)

Just take a look at this passage from “Visitation”:

            Gradually these disappearances ceased to make any impression on us, we became used to them and when, after many days, Father reappeared a few inches shorter and much thinner, we did not stop to think about it. We did not count him as one of us any more, so very remote had he become from everything that was human and real. Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us; point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.

            What still remained of him–the small shroud of his body and the handful of nonsensical oddities–would finally disappear one day, as unremarked as the gray heap of rubbish swept into a corner, waiting to be taken by Adela to the rubbish dump.

A father who shrinks away, ignored, and is eventually discarded in the trash is exactly the sort of strangeness stuck inside the mundane world that I was hoping for when I first read the title The Street of Crocodiles.

I’ve seen this book described as stories, but it seems to me to be more of a novel in story form. The stories are certainly stories, but there is a larger tale being told from the individual pieces. All of the stories describe this odd and at the same time both touching and disturbing world of the narrator’s childhood, as can be seen in this portion of “Mr. Charles:

And finally, when after sneaking from dresser to closet, he had found piece by piece all he needed and had finished his dressing among the furniture that bore with him in silence, and was ready at least, he stood, hat in hand, feeling rather embarrassed that even at the last moment he could not find a word which would dispel that hostile silence; he then walked toward the door slowly, resignedly, hanging his head, while someone else, someone forever turning his back, walked at the same pace in the opposite direction into the depths of the mirror, through the row of empty rooms which did not exist.

For me, that’s the overall story, that’s the thread that runs between the pieces.

Now, these stories seem deceptively simple. The language is straightforward and the prose seems easily accessible. However, for me, there was always something elusive as I read, something I couldn’t quite get a hold of. I’d think I’d have a handle on it but then, for some frustrating dream-like reason, I wouldn’t.

It reminded me a little of some of what goes on in “Cinnamon Shops.” The narrator gets sent on an errand and despite the time sensitive nature, he decides it is an opportunity to stop in these magical shops he always walks by. However, despite his familiarity with their location, he can’t find them:

Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street I knew and ran rather than walked, anxious not to lose my way. I passed three or four streets, but still there was no sign of the turning I wanted. What is more, the appearance of the street was different from what I expected. Nor was there any sign of the shops. I was in a street of houses with no doors and of which the tightly shuttered windows were blind from reflected moonlight. On the other side of those houses–I thought–must run the street from which they were accessible. I was walking faster now, rather disturbed, beginning to give up the idea of visiting the cinnamon shops.

In his search, he finds a high school where he frequently visits art classes and, still despite the time-sensitive nature of his errand, decides to pop in. But, just like the cinnamon shops, he can’t find the classroom. Instead, he finds himself in a wing of the school building that is completely unknown to him.

This confusion parallels what it was like for me to read The Street of Crocodiles. It seemed like I got what was going on, tender weirdness mixed in with the real world, but suddenly the path I was following went somewhere else entirely. These stories seem simple, but they are not. There is just a lot I didn’t grasp on this first reading…not to say that I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I expect that these are stories that I would need to read and reread quite a few times in order to fully appreciate. They don’t seem complex, until you try to understand. However, unlike other books I’ve said that about, I actually feel the need to come back and reread the stories of The Street of Crocodiles at some point. There seems to be something magical here that I haven’t gotten yet…and I want to get it.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Richard Yates is one of those authors who I have heard a great deal about, but had never actually read. For example, I read Richard Yates by Tao Lin. I probably missed out on a few things in reading that, because Lin was likely commenting on the vision of America embodied by Yates and I was not yet personally familiar with Yates. In any event, I was excited to get a chance to read Revolutionary Road.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Kate Atkinson, no relation to me that I’m aware of, and 8th for Judy Budnitz.)

Now, I had always heard that Revolutionary Road was a scathing indictment of suburban America penned at the early onset of such. To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with that.

I’d also heard that the book was about a pair of characters who are on the verge of uprooting their lives so that they can move to Paris and let the husband realize his potential as a writer, painter, or otherwise great thinker, but that alcohol and infidelity destroy them first. I’m not so sure I agree with that either. Perhaps I’m just feeling disagreeable.

However, presuming that I’m not just being contrary, maybe I should talk about the book a bit. We have Frank and April Wheeler, people who always talked big about Frank’s ideas and how much they hated the “hopeless emptiness” in which most suburban people lived their lives. However, because April becomes pregnant, they put dreams on hold, move to the suburbs, and Frank gets a job that he doesn’t take seriously. Still, they hold on in the midst of this, Frank being of the opinion that “the important thing was to keep from being contaminated…to remember who you were.”

Of course, they don’t. Eventually April realizes that they are becoming all the things that they both despise:

“I was bored. That’s part of what I’m trying to say. I don’t think I’ve ever been more bored and depressed and fed up in my life than I was last night. All that business about Helen Giving’s son on top of everything else, and the way we all grabbed at it like dogs after meat; I remember looking at you and thinking ‘God, if only he’d stop talking.’ Because everything you said was based on this great premise of ours that we’re somehow very special and superior to the whole thing, and I wanted to say ‘But we’re not! Look at us! We’re just like the people you’re talking about! We are the people you’re talking about!’

So, she offers Frank a plan where they will sell their house and move to Paris. He will be free to finally find himself and she will work to support the family.

But, does Frank go for it? Well, he does at first. However, his hated job starts becoming important to him, though he won’t admit it. Soon he finds a way (greatly assisted) to avoid having to live the dream because, really (though again, he won’t admit it), they never had any promise that they weren’t fulfilling. Eventually, April realizes all this (or most of it anyway) and actually says it out loud.

So, is this an indictment of suburbia? I don’t see how it really could be. The rot inside the relationship between Frank and April is present long before they move to suburbia. Suburbia exemplifies many of the things they rail against, and it is indeed the setting for their meltdown, but the problems represented by Frank and April seem to me to be much, much larger than just the modern suburban phenomenon in America.

The next question, then, is whether or not alcohol and infidelity destroy Frank and April’s chance at fulfilling their dreams. Again, I don’t think this is the case. Sure, there is some excessive drinking and some sleeping around. Sure, this would have been a major problem only if things had been fine otherwise. But, things had not been fine otherwise.

Frank’s conception of his own identity has always been of a gifted man who only needed the freedom to find himself and had to live out his life burdened by the fact that he’d never get the chance. Only, as Frank discovers when the chance is presented (though he may not admit it to himself)…this is just a pose. April discovers she is posing too and has been since she started posing that she was in love with Frank and believed in his potential. Frank and April are not actually destroyed by alcohol and infidelity, at least as I saw it. To the contrary, the alcohol and infidelity just seem like incidental aspects of their posing and their eventual realization that they are just posing. Frankly, an inherent flaw that they have carried with them from their beginning is what destroys Frank and April.

Having decided that I don’t completely agree with the views on Revolutionary Road which I have heard, I suppose we are left with what I do think this book is about. Rather than an indictment of suburbia, Revolutionary Road seems to me to be an indictment of fallibility humanity. We live our lives telling others and ourselves lies in order to get through the day. We sometimes try to be good to one another, but we rarely end up being what others need (and they might not deserve us to be anyway). Frank and April have their specific scenario which isn’t the life everyone lives, but it is just the example.

Come to think of it, indictment might not even be the right word. We just hope for things and life never quite meets up with our hopes. The rest is just a part of that. It’s sad, but it’s just part of being alive as a human being in the world.

At least, that’s my take on it. Regardless, I found Revolutionary Road to be a beautiful, if sad, book.