One of those books that excited me when I read it many years ago was All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. The 22nd Avenue Book Club read it a couple of months ago, and it struck me this time as a quintessentially American sort of book, dealing as it does with corruption in southern politics and the dangers of populist movements.
The themes running through the story are so basic and important. What is the difference between right and wrong and who is to decide and on what basis. Does all good really come from evil? Are we born burdened with original sin and if so how do we relieve ourselves of it?
I'm making the novel sound as deep and slow-moving as the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, but it's not. It's a lively story with varied characters all of whom we identify with at some point in the story. The narrator, Jack Burden, is wandering, trying to find his way in the world and he wanders into the purview of Willie Stark, the Huey Long character who changes the face of the state with his public works projects. Willie does a lot to help the people of Louisiana, but he does it with rigged contracts and back room deals. Jack Burden does his dirty work, finding the weak points of his opponents so that Willie can blackmail and threaten and get men to do his bidding. When Jack is assigned to find something on his childhood father figure, Judge Irwin, he realizes he is dealing with life and death matters.
All of the characters are broken by the end of the book, and we are left with the question: can their lives be put back together again?
The book club went on to watch the 1949 movie and I also saw the re-make with Sean Penn and Jude Law, which was just as good, though in a different way. If you want to understand American politics All the King's Men, the book or either movie, is a good place to start.