All the King’s Men: Breaking the Rules with Brilliance

Every week May I’ll be giving away four Audible audiobook codes to my mystery, Floats the Dark Shadow, narrated by Hollie Jackson.  That’s twenty in all.  Comment here on my blog on any blog post or any of my website pages to enter.  Be sure and leave a way to contact you.  Do you have a favorite audio book to praise?  I book you love that breaks the rules?

I am guest blogging today on DV Berkom’s Blog.  My post is on Breaking All Elmore Leonard’s Rules.

Those rules were written primarily for genre fiction, but the opening of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece is unusual for a literature as well. It breaks some far broader rules.  That and recently listening to Michael Emerson’s superb reading of the novel motivated me to write this post.

All the King’s Men is one of the few books I return to again and again. The only work of American literature I’ve read more often is The Great Gatsby.  And, as the end of The Great Gatsby is possibly my favorite ending of any book, the first page of All the King’s Men is one of my all-time favorites openings. Its hypnotic, lyrical realism, its evocation of time and place and mood, is never ending magic. Hearing Michael Emerson’s fabulous narration of the book, I realized that that first page is not just gorgeous and atmospheric. That first page, the mythical drive down the highway mirrors the drive that Jack Burden will take through the novel, tells you that the book is about Fate, and Blindness to Fate, and Death. It’s marked with a “metal square painted white and on it in black a skull and crossbones.”

But that’s not all.

“Later on love vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.”

Hear Emerson read here:

Breaking rules. We drive on, and that drive, part real, part metaphysical, follows with backstory, and not even character backstory, but backstory of Mason City. It gives us Willie Stark’s world and the understanding of how he’ll rise to power within it.  The second part of the chapter takes us to Burden’s Landing. Jack Burden’s world, though he’s doing his best to live in Willie’s. In each, we’re introduced or at least given a mention of the cast important to Willie and to Jack. Who loves them, and who they love. And those two places, those two worlds, Mason City and Burden’s Landing, are, in essence, characters who will fight to the death.

Breaking rules. Our narrator does not identify himself for 23 pages. The first chapter is 70 pages, almost a tenth of the book. From the way it moves I’d have guessed, as my husband did, that it was half that long, but I bothered to find the page count because I did know that our narrator is anonymous for a long time, when he could easily have been named for the reader. But Jack Burden sets himself apart, and it’s a stunning way to make you feel that.  He begins as the voyeur on the events.  We know he works for the “Boss.” He’s in the important first car with the Boss, but his role is ambiguous.  He does little stuff—helps the Boss’ wife out of the car, helps haul the aging, foul-breathed dog close enough to the Boss for the photo op. But he chose the farm for the photo op. And the Boss seeks him out to share a drink and talk. Like a friend.  And back when we met Willie for the first time, when we learned who was telling us the story, we learned Jack Burden used to be a political reporter. He did a lot of digging.

But who is the Boss? If you are reading the book you probably know that he is a fictional version of Louisiana’s Huey Long), but who is Willie Stark? The first chapter shows us in a myriad of ways. We see who Willie is from who he is with.  We find out who Willie might have been, if he was born rich and not as smart as he is, because we see his son first and see a detestable arrogance that is mirrored in their physical descriptions. But Willie is smart, and it makes a difference. He was always smart, but he was also naïve. We see him when Jack Burden first met him, and that’s when we name Jack for the first time, when he meets idealistic Willie in his cheap seersucker suit. Willie Stark who married the school teacher. We see that Tiny Duffy, who came out of the womb a politician, thinks it inconceivable that Willie is one. He exhibits not one tell-tale sign of the beast. But now Tiny Duffy works for the Boss. That Willie wanted to make a difference.  It took a different Willie to do it.  We see the Boss play at being just one of the folks to a dusty crowd that worships him. At his father’s farm, we see that he’s outgrown his roots, that he’s at the old farm as much for a photo op as to see his father. We see he’s outgrown the wife he used to adore. We see who he was, who he is, and most of us know that the skull and crossbones is waiting for him.

And then we drive to Burden’s Landing. And Jack the ambiguous sideliner is suddenly pinned dead center in the web. He’s the Prodigal Son returned. And the Judas. He’s the boss’ boy, but the boss is happy to serve him a drink, as long as it’s all part of the charade. It’s in Burden’s Landing, the world he’s betrayed, that we see that Jack Burden is a jack-of-all-trades henchman for the Boss, the king. He digs. He digs for dirt. But Jack could leave any time if he wanted to. He wants to be where he is. Willfully blind Jack loves looking for other people’s truth. When he doesn’t hate it.  He has no idea how much he’s going to hate it.

The first chapter begins with a drive down a hot summer road, it ends that night with another drive, in the dark and into the dark. When you reach the end of that first chapter, you’ll find that the whole book was encapsulated within it, more fully and intricately than in that beautiful opening page. The important players have been named, their roles declared, and their fates pronounced.  The skull and cross bones marked.

And that’s the beginning.

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