With this past year being so full of elections that affect my life, I’ve found myself devouring all kinds of political fiction. I’ve watched “Bulworth,” “The Candidate,” “Wag the Dog,” and “The West Wing,” and read Primary Colors. Most recently I have been savoring the distinctly Southern prose of Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men, a story of the rise and fall of a good ol’ Loozyanna boy who becomes governor, based on the real life story of Huey Long.
I don’t know what it is about Southern writers. Perhaps they appeal to what little sentiment about the region remains after two harrowing years in southern Georgia in my ’tweens. Perhaps it’s that they have a rhythm and a florid vocabulary which, while not necessarily superior to the Northern writers I like, still provides me as a reader with a unique kind of satisfaction. Or perhaps it’s that they seem to have a knack both for building up their characters and for ripping them apart that I appreciate. William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty have this gift, and Robert Penn Warren is every bit their match.
I haven’t read Warren’s poetry, but I’m interested in it now. His novel excels both in bawdiness and beauty in language whose equal I’ve never seen. Here’s a sample of the bawdiness:
The Boss went up to Chicago on a little piece of private business, about six or eight months after he got to be Governor and took me with him. Up there a fellow named Josh Conklin did us the town, and he was the man to do it, a big, burly fellow, with prematurely white hair and a red face and black, beetling eyebrows and a dress suit that fitted him like a corset and a trick apartment like a movie set and an address book an inch thick. He wasn’t the real thing, but he sure was a good imitation of it, which is frequently better than the real thing, for the real thing can relax but the imitation can’t afford to and has to spend all the time being just one cut more real than the real thing, with money no object. He took us to a night club where they rolled out a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of “Nordic Nymphs” in silver gee-strings and silver brassières came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassières vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trailing and floating and whipping in the air.
It took the boy from Mason City, who had never seen any ice except the skim-ice on the horse trough. “Jesus,” the boy from Mason City said, in unabashed admiration. And then, “Jesus.” And he kept swallowing hard, as though he had a sizable chunk of dry corn pone stuck in his throat.
It was over, and Josh Conklin said politely, “How did you like that, Governor?”
“They sure can skate,” the Governor said.
And here is the beauty:
I heard the match rasp, and turned from the sea, which was dark now. The flame had caught the fat of the light-wood and was leaping up and spewing little stars like Christmas sparklers, and the light danced warmly on Anne Stanton’s leaning face and then on her throat and cheek as, still crouching, she looked up at me when I approached the hearth. Her eyes were glittering like the eyes of a child when you give a nice surprise, and she laughed with a sudden, throaty, tingling way. It is the way a woman laughs for happiness. They never laugh that way just when they are being polite or at a joke. A woman only laughs that way a few times in her life. A woman only laughs that way when something has touched her way down in the very quick of her being and the happiness just wells out as natural as breath and the first jonquils and mountain brooks. When a woman laughs that way it always does something to you. It does not matter what kind of a face she has got either. You hear that laugh and feel that you have grasped a clean and beautiful truth. You feel that way because that laugh is a revelation. It is a great impersonal sincerity. It is a spray of dewy blossom from the great central stalk of All Being, and the woman’s name and address hasn’t got a damn thing to do with it. Therefore, that laugh cannot be faked. If a woman could learn to fake it she would make Nell Gwyn and Pompadour look like a couple of Campfire Girls wearing bifocals and ground-gripper shoes and with bands on their teeth. She could set all society by the ears. For all any man really wants is to hear a woman laugh like that.
*Sigh.* To be able to write like that. To sound like a hick, and yet still know the names of the most favored women of Kings Charles II and Louis XV. To get away with having the images of “the first jonquils” and “bifocals and ground-gripper shoes” in a single paragraph. To think of the bon mot that creates an image in the reader’s mind as vivid as the reality that surrounds the reader.
This book was recommended to me by a fellow history teacher (back when I myself was a history teacher) whose grandfather was active in politics and who touted this book as the greatest American novel ever. He claimed that it had something of everything—politics, family tension, friendship, spirituality, lust, and love. I’m halfway through and so far, I have not been disappointed.