I finished Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men the other night (in the wee hours of Shabbat morning, to be specific, while Bill—who has a cold—was snoring and snuffling in my arms). The second half was every bit as fascinating as the first, and as splendidly written. When Jack drives out to a sanatorium to visit a colleague, here’s Warren’s description of the place:
It didn’t look at all like a hospital, I discovered when I turned off the highway twenty-five miles out of the city and tooled gently up the drive under the magnificent groining of the century-old live oaks whose boughs met above the avenue and dripped stalactites of moss to make a green, saqueous gloom like a cavern. Between the regularly spaced oaks stood pedestals on which classical marbles—draped and undraped, male and female, stained by weathers and leaf acid and encroaching lichen, looking as though they had, in fact, sprouted dully out of the clinging black-green humus below them—stared out at the passer-by with the faintly pained, heavy, incurious unamazement of cattle. The gaze of those marble eyes must have been the first stage in the treatment the neurotic got when he came out to the sanatorium. It must have been like smearing a cool unguent of time on the hot pustule and dry itch of the soul.
Warren’s language amazes me. Yes, there is dialect which conveys character and places the novel geographically (with exclamations like Sugar-Boy’s “The b-b-b-bastud!”), but there is more. Look at this paragraph in a word-processing application, and the poor program doesn’t know what to do. It desperately wants you to change Warren’s “sanatorium” to “sanitarium” (the former is dated by Merriam-Webster online to 1839, the latter to 1851; it wants the slightly newer word). It’s uncomfortable with the gerund “groining” and wishes you would change it to the less objectionable “groaning” or “grinning.” It has no suggestions for “unamazement”; just get rid of it. And “saqueous”? It’s rare to catch an author in the act of making up words, yet here is Warren, in broad daylight, doing just that. Look this word up online and Google will ask if you meant “aqueous.” The OED has never heard of “saqueous” and the American Heritage goes straight from “sapwood” to “SAR” (Sons of the American Revolution). A bar of Vered (your choice of flavor) to whomever can give me a good definition of “saqueous.”
I’ve never been sure what people look for in The Great American Novel. Despite the publication of The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cold Mountain, and Snow Falling On Cedars (to name but five of my favorite American novels), it seems there are some who are still not satisfied that the Real Thing has ever been written. What it’s supposed to include, I’m not sure. But among these others, I would certainly nominate All the King’s Men for its account of the rise and fall of a two-bit lawyer-turned-populist politician, for the characters (crooked and honest) who are drawn by his gravitational pull, then repelled or destroyed by his self-destruction, and for the narrator (a la Lockwood in Wuthering Heights) who remains on the periphery but who is still deeply affected by the outcome, “who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.”
What would make a novel uniquely American? The Cap’n suggests rags to riches (and back again, I would add). Or perhaps it’s struggling with the things everyone struggles with (good and evil, ambition, loyalty, desire) in a specifically American context. Or it’s the illusion of social mobility in America. (Wharton dealt with that frequently.) I enjoyed The Ugly American for its critique of the limited vision and understanding of Americans vis a vis the rest of the world (politically, culturally, and economically), though it would probably be considered too preachy to be the Real Thing. Any thoughts, readers?
A good book, in my opinion, is one that one reads and then spends days, weeks, even years, thinking about. This is one such book.