First impressions: Geeeeee willikers

(In which we give our first impressions of All the King’s Men, two chapters in)

Tom: Wow, is this novel jarring after Alice Adams. The prose is stylistically just completely different. Booth Tarkington is light and breezy, effortless to read. Robert Penn Warren’s sentences are muscular and often densely packed. It took me absolutely ages to get past the first few pages, because I ran up against sentences like this, the third one of the book:

“You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry – shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hookers over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off course.

Say what now? Something about a road? What with film-awards season having just wrapped up, I couldn’t help but be reminded of La La Land‘s opening number on the highway. Am I meant to read this as a metaphor for life’s journey, or does a lot of American interaction just take place on roads? I know how much ‘y’all’ love your cars. And speaking of y’all, the fact that this book takes place in the American South with what Warren describes as “hicks” adds a sort of folksiness to the book when I’m reading it – are you getting that too, or is it just because I’m British? Also, what is a soda fountain?!!! Is it an actual fountain out of which soda erupts? Sounds fancy.


Monica: Welcome to the American South baby boy, and all its glittering, rolling, forked tongues, casual racism and honey-laden beauty. Hold onto your hat boo-boo, the vernacular gonna get hairy.  It must be a jarring entry (especially for a poncy British man like yourself) but I adore the dream-like fugue state that Mr. Burden (our narrator) seems to be in, spouting out sentences (via the pen of Mr. Robert Wright Penn) like this one, when Burden first meets our wayward protagonist Willie Stark:

“…where the formula fails in the test tube, where chaos and old night hold sway and we hear the laughter in the ether dream.”

Or this gem: “…the place where Time gets tangled in its own feet and lies down like an old house and gives up the struggle.”

Or this one, later on in Chapter 2 when Burden is explaining the feeling of losing his job: “But for the present, I would lie there and deal myself a hand, all right. Later on. But for the present I would lie there and know I didn’t have to get up, and feel the holy emptiness and blessed fatigue of a saint after the dark night of the soul. For God and Nothing have a lot in common. You look either one of Them straight in the eye for a second and the immediate effect on the human constitution is the same.” 

So much folksiness, so much depth…

P.S. a soda fountain is simply something soda streams from…. like draft beer… but draft soda.

Tom: I did get used to the rambling sentences after the initial hump of the first few pages, and I’m actually really enjoying the imagery. Exhibit A:

“He didn’t answer me right off, and I figured he was like one of those fellows who gets marooned on a desert island for twenty years and when the longboat is beached and the jolly tars leap out on the sand and ask him who the hell he is, he can’t say a word because his tongue is so rusty.”

It reminded me a bit of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, not just because of the unusual similes and metaphors, but also because the narrator is this tough-as-nails guy who’s actually a bit of a softie on the inside. So far I find myself much more interested in Jack Burden and his journey than Willie Stark and his. Stark’s path seems to be a pretty straightforward tale of power corrupting morals. Burden seems a lot more conflicted and complicated.

I must admit I peeked ahead to chapter 3 (just a couple of pages) and was interested to see that we go to the home of Burden’s mother – straying away from our erstwhile protagonist Stark. Is this really the story of Stark, or is it the story of Burden masquerading as the story of Stark? And, most intriguingly, who is Burden narrating this to, and why?

Monica: I find all of the characters interesting here. Burden is the one we get close to I think, but he also seems a little annoying with lots of issues. Will they turn out to be actual issues or just white-boy angst? I’m not sure. But I love the way he observes the world in both cold detachment and extremely intimate detail. I think he’s narrating this journey because there’s going to be some sort of grand meltdown or another. Is it reflection?

I am so interested in his weird relationship with his mother, p.s. – I peeked ahead as well and I think it’s pretty twisted. Man issues and what not.

Know who else is turning out to be surprisingly interesting? Sadie Burke. She has the distinction of being uniquely and truly un-beautiful and incredibly boorish and yet alluring, captivating and successful – unusual for female characters of the time, don’t you think?

Also interesting: Burden’s focus on Willie Stark’s lips. They come up… like five or six times. Soft on first glance, yet hard and firmly set. Why the lips? Interesting fixation.


Tom: Smoothly working the white-man angst into the convo Monica, bravissima! Yes, the mother-son relationship seems like a very… unusual one, which I’m sure we’ll discuss a lot in the next post, after I’ve dug more into Burden’s Oedipal burdens – what a name to choose by the way: Burden, it’s like the name of a character out of Pilgrim’s Progress.

I had not noticed that about the lips. I’m quite intrigued by the way you always manage to pick out these bodily fascinations that authors have – in Alice Adams, you noticed the obsession with arms. Perhaps you could have your own subreddit on the subject? Or even do it as your PhD topic: ‘Fetishising the Body: The Symbolism of Arms, Lips and Legs in the Works of 20th Century American Authors .’ Or, if you were writing it for Buzzfeed: ‘Check Out These Writers Who Totally Perved on Their Characters.’

So, predictions. I think we can safely say Jack Burden is going to unearth some horrible fact about Judge Irwin, his father figure,  to serve Willie Stark’s agenda of political revenge, because it’s presaged right at the end of chapter 1. It’s probably going to bring up a whole mess of white-man angst for you to seethe over. The question is, is that what we’re working towards as the denouement? And are we going to learn more about some of the other ‘King’s men?’

I’m also sure we’ll see more of how Willie Stark’s ‘I’m one of you’ political message turns from reality to fantasy, as he goes from genuine hard-done-by salt of the earth to someone who drives around in a chauffeured Cadillac.

Outside bet: Jack Burden schtoops his mother.

Monica: Ew. I think that takes the Oedipal journey a little too far don’t you? Dirty man. But yes, the repetitions and fixations are interesting – those little obsessions that authors use to bring out personalities and subtleties about their characters. I have a feeling Stark’s lips will grow harder by the chapter. Monica’s PhD: ‘Explorations of extraneous body parts and their super deep implications.’ Incidentally, I’ll have a multidisciplinary PhD in Anatomy and Extremist Feminism.

I’m also finding the narrative line of All The King’s Men fascinating, because we at once see Willie Stark as he was and as he becomes almost from scene to scene – we jump back and forth between the incorruptible Willie and his thoroughly BAD APPLE rotten worm-ridden self. One can imagine both the extreme admiration and disgust Burden feels, weighted down with the task of documenting both Stark’s journey and his own. Let the doom bells toll….


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