Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Either I'm dead right or I'm crazy

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 70 - 173

Well, when I said "argue with the judge" yesterday, what I really meant was "try to intimidate the judge into changing his endorsement." Despite the fact that Governor Stark seems to have a great deal of power, he fails to get the judge to back down. Burden, the narrator, is disgusted at his own involvement; he used to know the judge well, and is ashamed of his own part in the political corruption. You wouldn't know it from the way he acts, but his narration is full of self-loathing.

After they leave, Warren throws us back to the beginning of Willie Stark's political career. It turns out he gets into politics by becoming treasurer for his county. While he's in that position, a vote comes up for a contract to build a new schoolhouse, and Willie insists that the county take the low bid (like you do). However, the county commissioner wants to give the contract to his brother's contracting firm (which has been accused of substandard building practices and also offered a higher bid), and gets Willie kicked out of office in order to do so. Willie is disgusted, of course, but later vindicated when one of the fire escapes crumples during a fire drill, killing three children and making Willie look the righteous do-gooder. Shortly thereafter, upon the request of some concerned citizens, Willie runs for governor. It turns out that one of the other candidates arranged Willie's run so that he'd split the vote of the first candidate's opponent, and when Willie finds out, he exposes the whole plot in a high-profile speech. Afterward, he spends the rest of the campaign time speaking for the opposite side, having changed his whole persona and political diction (formerly righteous, informational, and boring and now inflammatory, didactic, and exciting). Burden covers Willie on the campaign trail and takes care of him when he finds out about the scandal and drinks himself into a near-coma.

A few years later, Willie runs for governor in his own right and is elected. Burden gets fired from his newspaper for refusing to write articles that hold the party line (which is in favor of the other candidate), and, after a period of whiny unemployment, Willie hires him. To do what, you ask? Whatever Willie decides, it seems.

Right now, it sounds from my description like both Stark and Burden are upstanding gentlemen who are fighting for what's right. That's misleading, though, because their actions belie the undercurrent of cynicism in the book. Burden's narration is so damn jaded and hopeless that it seems like everyone in the world is corrupt. I know Warren's doing that on purpose, since it's retrospective and Burden, has, in fact, lived in a corrupt world for years, but doing it through that lens makes it seem like no one has ever been honest. Even Stark, in this early example of crusading for what's right, seems like he's dirtied by corruption; Burden never stops calling him a dupe, and a fool, and a blind, naive moron. It's fairly impossible, then, to sympathize with either of them. Burden's obnoxious because he's so bitter that he can't take joy in anything, and Willie's obnoxious because he's presented as either an idiot (in the past) or a tragic example of corruption (in the present). Can no one actually be good? It's like watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only at the end, Mr. Smith just takes the graft money and screws the boy scouts out of their camp. Cheery.

I'm kind of annoyed by the dialogue, also. I don't know if it's just a product of the 40s, or what, but I find the way people speak to be stilted and unrealistic. It sounds like film noir or something, and I don't appreciate it as stylization, if that's what it is, so it comes across as affectation instead.

We'll see what happens, but it's hard to get into a book when you hate the narrator. And all the other characters, come to think of it.

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