Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Review: All the King's Men by Robert Warren Penn

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Title: All the King's Men
Author: Robert Penn Warren
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover: 672 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Set in the 1930s, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the rise and fall of demagogue Willie Stark, a fictional character who resembles the real-life Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana. Stark begins his political career as an idealistic man of the people but soon becomes corrupted by success and caught between dreams of service and an insatiable lust for power. As relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, All the King's Men is one of the classics of American literature.

Overall Rating: 4/5

This one was so hard for me to get through. The beginning is very slow and dry, but the further I got into the story, the more interested I got. It's a great book that deals with what people sacrifice in themselves (goodness, dignity, character, etc.) to obtain wealth or power. Jack Burden tells the intertwined story his life and the life of Willie Stark, a man who rises from a simple farmer to a governor who wants to run for president.

Like I said, the book is slow, but the plot develops nicely. It builds upon itself and I don't think that Warren added any unnecessary information. Everything built atop itself and everything in there is needed to tell the full story. Maybe it could have been less wordy, but that's a stylistic issue that I don't mind so much.

I do think that Warren relies heavily on archetypes to get his point of view across; there is no female character who is complex and surprising. Likewise, I think most of the male characters fit into a specific category. For me, that was troublesome, because I usually get to like books because of the characters -- I think that's why it was so hard for me to connect to this story at first. I don't think it's even plot-driven; instead, the themes are what drive this narrative. Warren focuses on life, the human condition, doing good versus doing bad, the consequences of ambition, and many more. (This is probably the reason for why it is studied in some high schools.)

Writing a novel driven by themes has its problems, but I did enjoy reading this. It wasn't a fast read at all, and I had to take my time with it, but I think that's a good thing. I was able to think about what Warren was trying to say through his story and he makes some valid arguments through his characters and plot. I liked seeing how essentially good men sacrificed their character in order to achieve or maintain a high status of wealth and/or power. There is inherent conflict in that, and it's something worth thinking about. How far would we go for the things that we think matter? What would we sacrifice to achieve our goals? These are the essential questions that are asked throughout the novel. Though I think this is far too heavy reading for a high school classroom, (Most students wouldn't get through page 15, I'm betting.) some passages or chapters can be used to inspire these reflective questions.

While slow, dry, and dated, I think this is a good book to read. The characters may have lost some of their relevance over time, but the story and the themes are timeless.