Tuesday, December 14, 2004

MH - Comparative Lit 101

As you might gather from the excerpts I’ve posted recently, I’ve been reading two very different political novels that both, in some way, deal with the seamier side of politicians and politics – Christopher Buckley’s hilarious satire No Way to Treat a First Lady, and Robert Penn Warren’s gothic political horror story All the King’s Men.

Buckley, who recently won the Thurber Award for humor, is near the top when it comes to political satire – I saw him in person a couple of years ago and regretted not asking him if it was more difficult to write satire nowadays, seeing as how it seems pretty hard to top the absurdity of what you hear on the evening news. No Way to Treat a First Lady might not be his best but it’s still a great read, and I’m looking forward to his recently published Florence of Arabia.

On the other hand, there are only flashes of grim humor in Warren’s relentlessly dark and somber novel of corrupt mankind, and since this was my first encounter with Warren, I’ll be focusing the balance of my attention in his direction.

I bought All the King’s Men over twenty-five years ago for a college lit class I soon dropped. I kept the book, though – I was reading a lot of political fiction back then (Seven Days In May, The Manchurian Candidate, Convention, Full Disclosure, to name a few), and knew it was something I’d read one of these days.

The years passed and more books followed – Fail Safe, The President’s Plane is Missing, the entire Advise and Consent series, All the President’s Men (I know, it’s not supposed to be fiction, but…), and still All the King’s Men was on the bookshelf. As I grew older and my outlook on politics soured, I moved into political satire – Christopher Buckley, P.J. O’Rourke – but it wasn’t until recently, when I’d run out of Nero Wolfe mysteries, that I decided to finally give Warren a try.

All the King’s Men, the fictionalized story of former Louisiana governor Huey Long, is what you might call “serious” fiction (just look at the number of reviews on amazon.com from students who’d been assigned to read it). It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and was adapted into a movie that won the Best Picture Oscar two years later. As such, it has all the gravity that one might expect. But it has more, much more. It has language.

The book has recurrent themes – motion, for example (the motion of cars down the highway, the motion forward in the quest for knowledge and the journey both away from and towards God, the motion of heading toward one’s destiny while at the same time trying to escape from it). And always, there’s the underlying question of good and evil (at one point, Willie Stark, the Huey Long character, comments that all good comes from evil because evil is all there is to work with).

Perhaps because of the novel’s basis in fact, the ending has a preordained feeling that allows Warren to concentrate on other elements of the story. It is true, as many critics have pointed out, that Warren digresses from time to time – in particular, two sub-stores go far afield from the main narrative, and in the hands of a lesser writer you might even forget what he’d been talking about before.

You have to constantly remind yourself that the man is a poet; otherwise, you’re going to keep wondering why it takes him two pages to describe a scene that could just as easily be boiled down to two paragraphs – if, it fact, it has to be included at all. This means you’re going to have to get lost in the language as much as you do the plot. If all you’re interested in is how it’s going to end, watch the movie. And yes, on occasion the florid language gets a little tedious – at times I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t actually reading someone’s parody of Warren’s style (you know, like the Bulwer-Lytton contest).

This can make the book frustrating reading at times – and yet, just when you’re ready to flip ahead a few pages to get back to the story, you run into something like this:

So maybe she was up in the room trying to discover what her new self was, for when you get in love you are made all over again. The person who loves you has picked you out of the great mass of uncreated clay which is humanity to make something out of, and the poor lumpish clay which is you wants to find out what it has been made into. But at the same time you, in the act of loving somebody, become real, cease to be a part of the continuum of the uncreated clay and get the breath of life in you and rise up.

You might expect to hear this from Bishop Sheen, but it’s not likely you’ll encounter it in Term Limits or Absolute Power. And that’s my point. As far as telling the story is concerned, it might not have been worth 20 pages just to get to this paragraph. But sometimes the value of writing lies not in plot development but in the sheer pleasure of reading the printed word on the page.

Which brings us to this question – All the King’s Men is generally considered one of the great political novels ever written, if not the greatest. But is it really a political novel? I suppose if you’re comparing Warren to Vince Flynn or David Baldacci, then the answer is no. There’s not enough “action” in “the corridors of power” – or in the bedroom, for that matter. (Not that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and sex does play a pivotal role in All the King’s Men – it’s just that you don’t actually see it.)

But what this book does, however imperfectly at times, is tell you about the human condition, about human nature and what makes people tick. And that is really what politics is all about. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum (although we can be forgiven for thinking that one does exist, between the ears of most politicians), and it’s the elements that go into making up one’s character – where you live, when you live, your friends, family, neighbors, those you love and those whose love you lose – that doom Warren’s characters, almost from birth, to act in the ways they do.

Politics doesn’t occur in a vacuum; the people involved in it are, whether they want to admit it or not, part of the larger world. This is the difference between a political novel (Balance of Power, for example) and a novel about men and women in politics.

Does this mean we have to look to the past, to books like All the King’s Men and Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, in order to discover the future of the political novel? For a long time I’ve wanted to see what the post-modern (for lack of a better word) political novel would look like. By this I mean books that don’t fall into the thriller genre as most political books today do, written by today’s contemporary novelists, written about people whose identities are not defined by what they are – by what office they hold – as much as by what they are made up of.

Using those terms, the first book that comes to mind is Tim O’Brien’s haunting and disturbing In the Lake of the Woods, followed by Don DeLillo’s equally disorienting Libra. You might be able to make a case for Joyce Carol Oates with The Assassins or Black Water, though I wouldn’t push the point. I thought that John Calvin Batchelor’s Father’s Day might be one, since Batchelor had quite a post-modern reputation, but unfortunately it turned out to be (IMHO) a load of junk.

What I’m looking for is someone who will do for politics much as Paul Auster did for detective novels with his stunning New York Trilogy – turn it on its ear. If and when that happens, the results should be interesting. Notice I said “interesting,” which is not necessarily the same thing as “good.”

Or maybe it’s already happened – I’d welcome hearing from readers with any nominations. No pun intended, of course.


  1. On political novels, I would throw into the mix "The Last Hurrah," Edwin O'Connor's 1950s book about big-city machine politics. I believe the novel also won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Frank Skeffington, the protagonist, finds himself a man out of time as he seeks re-election. He doesn't understand that the game is changing and that television will play a larger role in selling politicians like, as they used to say, soap flakes.
    Skeffington is beaten by a young, shallow candidate who understands and skilfully exploits the new medium. Skeffington's politics are intensely personal; he knows the laborer as intimately as he does the power broker. A memorable scene shows him using his muscle to ensure that one of his deceased ward heelers (and not a well-liked one) gets a big turnout at his wake, and that his widow is not fleeced by the undertaker.

    O'Connor does not sentimentalize Skeffington who, after all, presides over an administration marked by corruption if one of notable achievements. This book, packed with wonderful characters, has a wistful tone. Perhaps O'Connor mourns the passing of a time when citizens truly connected with their leaders.

    Spencer Tracy played Skeffington in the movie version, which is pretty good. But it can't top the book.


  2. Whitcomb,
    Quite right, that's an excellent suggestion. My first experience with The Last Hurrah, unfortunately, was the TV remake with Carroll O'Connor as Skeffington - a good actor, but no Spencer Tracy IMHO. But that's a terrific book, another example of not just a great political novel, but a great novel. Thanks for your comments and welcome to Our Word!


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