all the king’s men: the beef steak & the slaughterhouse

two words: one coin

You know this story. It plays out regularly, every four or six years or so. Politics.

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All The King’s Men re-enacts the ancient and brutal clash of ethics inherent in all power struggles and with all the usual suspects – this time in the impoverished south in 1930’s USA.

Cue the populist, the oligarchs and a bitter bloody end.

The central character, Willie Stark, a self-proclaimed hick who wants to be president, and the wealthy land-owners (former slave-owners) and oil barons with tenuous grip on the status quo, each believe themselves entitled to govern the resource-rich state of Louisiana. The ‘oligarchs’, inflated with lofty idealism and old-power, and upstart Willie, endowed with the ‘will and need’ of his fellow “rednecks, suckers and hicks,” p.142 engage in a feud ripe with hypocrisy and doom: Idealism is propped up on selective amnesia and complacency, and Willie relies heavily on coercion and intimidation. But both sides bear an absolute moral right. Both wear blinders,

…like someone who just love beef steak but just can’t bear to go down to a slaughterhouse because there are some bad rough men down there who aren’t animal lovers p.385

which is psychic observation, as at this very moment in our own slaughterhouse ‘abattoir’ wars, idealism is still brother to dirty deed. They are inextricable, and the clash as innate as sibling rivalry. Idealism and action are equal parts of the same thing, each vital to the others existence. As are outrage and obstinate ignorance.

This is observed  by All The King’s Men narrator Jack Burden, the apathetic student of History who straddles both sides – son to a wealthy land owner but employee to Willie Stark. He plays the role of inert nexus. Plagued by a paralysis of fear and lack of conviction, he inadvertently affects the destiny of each character in the novel.

For all the world is one piece… it doesn’t matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. p.283

Jackie Burden learns in the end what he would have learned finishing a thesis he abandoned: that there are always ‘historical costs’ p.593 ricocheting through time and space beyond our action or inaction.

Consequence is a bitch and never pretty.

I really enjoyed reading All The King’s Men, but I wish it was shorter than its near 700 pages, as it easily could’ve been if Warren chopped out all the repetition, the narrator’s intrusive musings and the hysterics from the women. But it was a really great read, with its hazy and bourbon-soaked southern drawl, charming parochial wit and Sugar-Boy’s “b-b-b-bastards.”

Adding to the relish of this novel is that Willie Stark is based on real-life populist Huey Long, nicknamed ‘The Kingfish’, which is more pertinent to the title than the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme.

Willie Stark’s assassin is also based on real life Dr. Carl Weiss. Fun fact.

There are two film adaptations. The first in 1949 won 3 Academy Awards,

and the 2006 film isn’t as terrible as everyone says.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, a bit top-heavy in the casting and mangled at the end, but it is beautifully beautifully shot and retains Warren’s best and most memorable lines verbatim.

Bonus Fun Fact: What do Barack Obama and Willie Stark have in common? Both are intent on beating the odds, and both can snatch a fly from mid-air, like Keisuke Miyagi.

hypocrites-bob marley
everyone choose sides-the wrens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s