Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'd take the seasick crocodile.

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 550 - 661 (end)

I'm not sorry to be done, I'll say that about it. The ending was pretty sensational, and I don't mean that in the nice way.

Just after the scandal gets cleared up, Tom Stark gets injured in a football game and ends up paralyzed. As a result, Willie Stark withdraws his deal with the crooked contractor because he feels he has nothing to lose and is, for the moment, politically untouchable. The contractor, who was in cahoots with Stark's Lieutenant Governor, "Tiny" Duffy, is displeased, of course. As a result, an unidentified caller gets in touch with Adam Stanton and tells him that Anne slept with Stark, and that's why he was given the hospital directorship. Stanton is so incensed that he assassinates Stark at the capitol building and gets himself shot and killed in the process.

Afterward, Burden finds out that Duffy was the one who called Stanton, and, while he does go to his office and threaten him, resolves to leave well enough alone about it, since Duffy has no future in politics anyway. Burden, in fact, has a dramatic change of heart, marries Anne Stanton, and decides to write his long-lost dissertation about Cass Mastern. Burden finally realizes that the past doesn't define the future, only provides a jumping-off point for it, that he's wasted his life up until now, and that he wants to make the world a better place.

In the words of the immortal valley girl of 90s California, "Gag me with a spoon." I mean, really, Warren? This guy, who has no moral fiber of any kind, and who we've seen, time and time again, make reprehensible decisions more out of apathy than anything else, who's written off both the women in his life because they didn't do exactly what pleased him, and who blackmailed the only man in his life he ever really respected - this guy turns it all around and is filled with the light of righteousness and truth? For fuck's sake, man, you can't just completely change your mind about everything you've said in the entire novel right at the end.

I don't know, maybe you can, and I should be happy about it, since I just whined about how I hate books that condemn humanity as worthless, but I wanted it to be more believable, in the end. I just don't know that there was enough reason for Jack Burden to have a change of heart. It's not as though there was any one event that could have changed my mind, I suppose, it's just that I needed to see some flicker of morality in Jack's soul at some point before the very end of the novel. It's like deus ex machina, in a way, or deathbed conversion - it doesn't mean anything when it's sudden and without reason.

Speaking of deathbed conversions, there was some sense of Stark having wanted to do right all along that sneaked* into the novel in this end bit. When he was dying, he told Jack that he wished it had all been different, and Jack reflected on the fact that sometimes good men act badly in order to achieve good. Warren seemed to be arguing not for the idea that the ends justify the means, but for the idea that politicians who have fallen prey to that logic are not necessarily bad, but are just trying to act within the limitations of the political system. That was the kernel of truth in this book, really, and the idea that I liked best in it. The political system seems designed, in a way, to cause moral compromise. A senator can never get the law that he really wants passed, because it will have to be tweaked and amended, defanged by the opposing party, and passed through a committee that will make more changes, so that eventually it will be barely recognizable. That, too, is a kind of moral compromise. However, I think Warren carries the idea a little far. I don't think Willie Stark is actually a sympathetic character, simply because we've seen him bully, both verbally and physically, too many people. You want to build a hospital? That's great, but it doesn't excuse the years of corruption and blackmail that stand behind your career.

I don't know what to say about it. It was one-sided, a bit rambling, and disorganized, but it had moments of truth and discussed the political system in a way that hadn't been done before it was written. The ending was a bit of flash-in-the-pan, but I'm not sure most people would object to it as strongly as I do. I'm slightly swayed by the fact that it won a Pulitzer (which I shouldn't be, since that's very emperor's new clothes of me), but I still don't think it's worthy of the list. It's marginal. I don't have a good answer.

*As a side note, did you know that snuck is actually not a grammatically correct past tense form of sneak? I learned that today, and, I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. Snuck seems much more illustrative to me. Alas.

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