I have long been under the impression that All the King's Men is about a populist demagogue similar to Huey Long. Having read the book at last, I don't think that's quite right. It's closer than saying that Macbeth is about Duncan, but it's off the mark in that general direction. All the King's Men does indeed chronicle the rise and fall of the politician Willie Stark, but the real subject of the book is the narrator, Jack Burden, who is Stark's close adviser and assistant and sometimes what would be called today his political "fixer." If you've seen House of Cards (the U.S. version), think of Doug Stamper.
The story takes place in the 1920s and '30s in an unnamed coastal Southern state that could be Louisiana, Mississippi, or maybe Alabama--the descriptions of the town where Burden is from sounds to me more like the Mississippi coast. Stark is a country boy without money or connections who is elected treasurer of his home county. In that role he resists a corrupt deal pushed by the people who run the place, and although he is expelled from local politics his resistance is spectacularly vindicated, and he attracts attention from outside. Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter in a larger city (perhaps the capitol, I'm not sure) sent to cover the story.
From this point on their lives are joined. Stark is flattered by powerful politicians into running for governor, not grasping that their purpose is only for him to take votes from a candidate they oppose. He pours his heart and all his energy into running as an earnest reformer with a fistful of detailed plans, loses badly, and soon discovers that he has been manipulated. And then he discovers that he himself has quite a talent for manipulating people, not only the voters but the people behind the scenes, and begins to exercise his gifts ruthlessly. Burden leaves his newspaper job and goes to work for him. Together they are especially effective at the political technique of more or less blackmailing people by threatening them with exposure of dirty secrets. Stark's anger at the wealthy and powerful and his desire to improve life for the people of the state are genuine, but his methods are demagoguery and "busting"--that is, ruining the lives--of those who oppose him.
Burden is in many ways Stark's opposite: he is from an old, wealthy, and powerful family, well-connected to other such families. And it is the drama of his life, his family, and two other families close to his, that is the real center of the novel. Stark's rise, which of course is in the foreground publicly, is almost in the background of the novel, serving as the engine which drives developments in Burden's story. We don't hear many of the details of that rise. In fact it's already a fait accompli when the novel opens, some fifteen years after Burden's first meeting with Stark. Stark is now governor, and running for another term. Burden, who among other things is ruthlessly effective at what we now call opposition research, is directed by Stark to find some dirt on a Judge Irwin, a prominent man who opposes Stark. They are driving back from a late-night meeting with the Judge at which he has made clear his disdain for Stark:
The Boss said, "Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you."
And I said, "Callahan?"
And he said, "Nope, Irwin."
And I said, "I don't reckon you will find anything on Irwin."
And he said, "You find it."
We bored on into the dark for another twenty miles and eighteen minutes....
At about the end of that eighteen minutes and twenty miles, I said, "But suppose I don't find anything before election day?"
The Boss said, "To hell with election day...if it takes ten years, you find it."
We clocked off five miles more, and I said, "But suppose there isn't anything to find?"
And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And I said "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."
Two miles more, and he said, "And make it stick."....
Little Jackie made it stick, all right.
Those are the closing words of the first chapter. You figure when you read them that they are setting the stage for something, and you're right. The rest of the book can be seen as a working out of the significance of that exchange, and the working-out involves not only what will happen but what has happened, and how the has-happened affects the will-happen--not determining it, quite, but driving it, not beyond the reach of free will to change it, but to an end which is inevitable unless a deliberate and determined act of will prevents it.
Narrative, character, and effective prose are the essential components of a good novel. (In that order? I think so.) This one gets five stars (out of five) on all counts. I haven't read any of Faulkner's Big Books for some years, but I have been inclined to think them just a bit over-rated. Not that they aren't extremely good, but that they aren't quite as good as they are commonly considered. I thought of Faulkner often while reading All the King's Men, and what I was thinking was this is like Faulkner, but better. Just as rich, but more clear, in both its sentence-level detail and its broad narrative. It moves back and forth in time, as Faulkner often does, but the pieces seem both more distinct in themselves and more clear in their relation to the whole; it is truly a story, not a meditation upon a story, as Faulkner's approach sometimes tends to be. (Take that comparison as an impression, not a considered judgment, as I might change my mind when or if I re-read Faulkner.)
Warren's descriptive passages are extensive and fecund, like Faulkner's, and some might feel that they are excessive. Some indeed might feel that the book is somewhat over-written. But I didn't find it so; for me it's one of those books, like Moby Dick, of which I can say that I enjoyed every word, or almost. I especially liked the rich atmosphere of the many scenes set on the coast, which is a good deal like the area where I've lived since 1992.
Philosophically the book is for the most part quite grim. Here is Stark trying to persuade an idealistic doctor who thinks very badly of him to run the hospital Stark wants to build:
Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you can't inherit that from anybody. You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why, Doc?" He raised his bulk up in the broken-down wreck of an overstuffed chair he was in, and leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his elbows cocked out, his head outthrust and the hair coming down into his eyes, and stared into Adam's face. "Out of badness," he repeated. "And you know why? Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."
Stark again, trying to persuade Jack to use ruinous information against someone:
He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"
"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."
"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.
"Boy," he said, "I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And--" he grinned suddenly--"I have found it very valuable."
Quite grim, that is, until the end. This goes on my very short list of books that I not only may read again, but intend to read again. It has also made me interested in reading more of Warren, with whom I previously had only slight acquaintance, though I've always been very aware of his importance, in Southern literature especially.
It's satsuma time here. This truck appears at a farm a few miles out of town around this time every year. Aside from it being a source of delicious satsumas, it represents something which I am always happy to see and which I hope will survive. You probably can't read that little T-shaped note on the box directly below the word "Now." It says "Pay Here," with an arrow pointing to a locked box where you deposit your money. I think it's wonderful that people are at least mostly honest enough that this works.