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Merle

Merle

All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren It's doubtful that any book will ever be chosen as The Great American Novel, but those looking for one should certainly try All the King's Men.

I don't read many classics these days, but discovered this one when it was assigned in high school English. Then I had to read it twice to feel like I really had a grip on it. (Yeah, I was that kid.) It was worth it, though, as this is one of the most masterful novels I've ever read.

For starters, Robert Penn Warren is great with language; it will come with no surprise that he was also a poet. Some of the passages in this book demand that you stop and admire his skill with the English language, and that's not something I do often. But his knowledge of language is complemented by a knowledge of the world: this isn't one of those dry classics full of long-winded philosophical musings or descriptions of trees (although the former at least is present), but a fascinating story in its own right. It centers on Jack Burden, the right-hand man to governor Willie Stark, who is based on a 1930's governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. There is a fair bit about politics here, with the focus on demagoguery and the corrupting influence of power much more so than specific political issues. But that is balanced by the story of Jack's life, jumping backward and forward in time; to me that enhances the story rather than confusing it, but I won't deny that this novel requires a great deal of concentration.

The characterization is excellent, and Warren's depiction of human relationships is nothing if not intense. He does a similarly wonderful job evoking various settings. My only criticism is that too many of the characters tend to talk as if they were philosophers or mind-readers (character A can only inform character B of what B thinks, feels or believes so many times before I start to roll my eyes). Still, in a novel this brilliant, that's a minor flaw.

This is a must-read for those interested in classics, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American Literature (with a capital L) or who is looking for a challenging book, because believe me, this isn't an easy or quick read. If you're up for it though, it's worth the trouble, because All the King's Men is a true masterpiece.