This is just one of those books that is larger than the space it occupies and digs deep to figure out the ways in which the world functions. It’s a book that has loomed large over my reading education in a lot of ways, and growing up in Virginia (but namely the South) it’s one of those books that clearly punctuates Southern literary life. The other authors on that list are Poe and Faulkner and Mark Twain (kind of) and Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston and Thomas Wolfe and so on.
The book is also one of those books that I thought was one thing, and it turns out is another, and I am not sure I would have understood that if I had read this when I was 20, about the time I first tried to read it.
Ostensibly it’s about Willie Stark, a character built upon the structures of singular politicians like Huey Long. We begin with a trip to Governor Willie Stark’s childhood home where his father and ancient dog await a photo-op. When we’re there, we learn that a judge of some reputation plans to defy Willie’s senate nominee of choice and the whole crew scrambles across the state to address the situation. What becomes more and more clear as we go on, and should have been clear from the opening few pages is that this isn’t really Willie Stark’s story but Jack Burden’s, the 35 year old narrator of the novel who works now as a kind of political factotum. From a well-off and well-connected family, having failed out of society, failed out of law school, and up and quit a PhD in the final hours, he is a kind of listless politico who is beginning to realize he’s a man of consequence and action, but entirely empty and devoid of purpose. He is sent to find out dirt on the recalcitrant judge, and through this search, we out decades worth of his personal history, the history of the South, and the history of the politics of the state.
This is a brilliant, searching novel that is about so much more than its contents. I was limited in my early understanding by the ways in which the movie versions scale back everything but the naked politics, which are good, but secondary. This reminds me so much of the exact same experience I had with William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, arguably the greatest novel written by a Virginia writer.