All the King's Men

From A to B
New books dissected over email.
Feb. 5 2002 5:09 PM

All the King's Men

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Dear Chris,

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Chips from the workshop:

In Hollywood scriptwriting, we practitioners sometimes refer to the "A story" and the "B story," terms related to, but not precisely identical to, the old notion of main plot and subplot. Or rather, they constitute a refinement of that familiar vocabulary. The A story is the story of the hero's quest, and yes, it usually qualifies as the main plot. The B story, on the other hand, is usually a love story proceeding in parallel to the A story, and ideally, intersecting it in clever and mutually reinforcing ways. A 12-year-old boy wakes up to discover he inhabits the body of a 30-year-old man and now must find a way to manage his new life while also trying to get his identity back. There's your A story. Along the way, he meets a young woman who first becomes his lover but then ultimately his reluctant ally, helping him recover his lost youth. That's your B. However, the apparent primacy suggested by the letter A is a little misleading. People in movies know that while the A story drives the action, the B story is the source of most of the emotional power. You pitch the A story to the studio execs, but if you want to win over an audience, the B story is the best friend you have.

In a general way, and if not taken too far or too literally, these ideas are applicable to fiction as well, even to literary fiction on the highest level. It's astonishing, for example, how many classic 19th-century novels contain an A story about money and a B story about love. The challenge for a writer, regardless of period or medium, is to maintain proper equipoise between the two.

My biggest problem with All the King's Men is structural. It seems to me that Warren found himself so besotted with his B story—found himself so in love with Anne, the character you wrongly insist is a cipher—that he stinted the A story. And in the process (such are the thermodynamics of fiction) he marred his B story as well, depriving it of much of its emotional punch.

The novel's effectiveness depends on a convincing portrayal of the nobility and villainy, courage and venality, dignity and vulgarity, of Willy Talos. Everything else must flow from that. We need to find him as fascinating and compelling and confusing as the novel's characters do. We need to be continually torn between admiration and disdain. We need all that in order to understand and share Jack's combination of pride and self-disgust, we need it to grasp Anne's seemingly incomprehensible infatuation, we need it to share Adam's murderous rage. But we don't get enough of it. Not nearly. Yes, Jack's "better" friends and associates despise Talos, but they do so more, it seems, out of class snobbery and economic self-interest than as a result of any demonstrated wickedness on the governor's part. The only really evil thing we actually see Talos do is persuade Jack to blackmail old Judge Irwin. That isn't nice, God knows, but there isn't a state capital in the country where it would raise an eyebrow, not back in the 1930s, not in 2002, nor in any year in between. Within the context of rough-and-tumble Depression-era Louisiana politics, it doesn't seem remotely bad enough to counterbalance the good we're often shown Talos doing.

Indeed, for a political novel, the political stuff is awfully sparse. I hesitate to suggest the novel should be longer, but the structure of the A story is at least three or four important scenes shy of wholeness. It would benefit from more wheeling and dealing on Talos' part, more scenes of gritty in-the-trenches governance. And it needs at least one act of genuinely unforgivable nastiness. Otherwise, Talos comes across as merely a man with crude manners who wants to build better schools and a hospital for poor folks and is sometimes prepared to use ungentlemanly tactics in order to achieve these worthy ends. It isn't enough. It doesn't begin to capture the reckless demagoguery and penny-ante tyranny of Talos' real-life model, Huey Long.

Perhaps Warren was prepared to let contemporary ambivalence about Long do some of his work for him. His audience already knew enough about the man's misdeeds to supply what the novel lacks. That may have been sufficient back in 1946. At over half a century's remove, it feels like authorial dereliction.

But having said all that, I also need to say the book lives and will continue to live. It's richly evocative of its period and locale, for one thing; you feel the heat of summer, you hear the flies buzzing, you smell the manure (and yes, shit is everywhere in this novel) and the jasmine, you know what the beer halls and the offices and the cheap rooming houses look like, replete with spittoons and ugly wallpaper. The book's languorous pace seems absolutely appropriate to the world it describes and the characters who people it. And contrary to what you've said in both your postings, the novel boasts a complex narrative voice that, while not always reliably under the author's control, nevertheless effectively and often subtly betrays the narrator's human fault-lines. The novel says something true about the seductions of power. It contains a 50-page description of down-and-dirty detective work—Jack's research to blackmail Judge Irwin, alluded to above—as persuasive as any I've read in fiction, with no cheating and no shortcuts. It has two stunning plot turns that, to my eyes, manage to steer clear of crass artifice or contrivance and pack a convincing wallop.

This is a big, sloppy, flawed, powerful book. Its ambitions are huge, and it doesn't always fulfill them. But it manages to do what good books do: It sucks you into its world and keeps you there. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to readers coming to it fresh.

Y'all come back real soon, y'hear?

Erik

Erik Tarloff is the author of Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book and is a member of Slate's book-reviewing team.

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