Sunday, October 22, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Robert Penn Warren's All The King’s Men:
In the l930s, during the Great Depression, there were those who feared that democracy might not survive. All you had to do was look at what Huey Long was doing in Louisiana to see that the danger was real. One of the most brilliant men in politics, Huey Long, studying sixteen to twenty hours a day, had finished law school at Tulane in eight months, instead of the three years it took everyone else, and became a member of the Louisiana bar when he was only twenty-one. Fourteen years later, when he was thirty-five, he was elected Governor and changed Louisiana government out of all recognition. Local government was all but abolished, and election commissioners were appointed by the state, which meant that Long could make sure the vote was whatever he wanted it to be. And in case anyone should challenge on constitutional grounds anything he wanted to do, he filled the Supreme Court with men completely loyal to him.

Government was corrupt, but no one much cared. Huey Long got things done; more than that, Huey Long was what everyone wanted to be. When he spoke, he said what everyone in the crowd had always felt, but could never find the words to say. He was their idol, what they would give anything to be themselves. He had so much popular support, so much control over what went on in Louisiana that he once walked onto the floor of the state legislature and directed passage of 44 bills in 22 minutes, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Two years after he was elected Governor, he was elected to the United States Senate. Governor, Senator, the only thing left was the presidency, the only question whether it would be in l936 or 1940. He knew exactly what he was going to do: create a third party, destroy the Democratic and Republican parties, serve four terms, and govern the country the way he governed Louisiana. Far from hiding his ambition, he described to a reporter for the New York Times how he was going to become the first American dictator. Franklin Roosevelt thought him one of the two most dangerous men in the country.

While Huey Long was creating a system of free healthcare and education, and building highways where only dirt roads had run, while he was showing how someone with a mass following could trample on all the safeguards of democracy. a young teacher in the English department at Louisiana State University, fascinated by what he saw, started thinking about writing a novel. Huey Long’s slogan had been “Every man a king;” Robert Penn Warren called his novel All The King’s Men. As the title suggests, the novel is not about the king, the Governor, Willie Stark; it is about the people around him.

The central character is Jack Burden, who tells the story the way a Southern writer used to tell a story, with long, sometimes endless, sentences, like the one that describes his first glimpse of Willie Stark: “Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five foot eleven inches tall and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing, and a stiff high collar like a Sunday school superintendent and a blue-striped tie which you know his wife gave him last Christmas…and a gray felt hat with the sweat stains showing through the band. It comes in just like that, and how are you to know?”

Willie Stark, treasurer of rural Mason County, objected when the contract for the construction of a new schoolhouse was given to a contractor who gave kickbacks to politicians and used substandard materials to save himself money. Stark’s warning lost him the support of those same politicians and cost him the next election. Three years later, the fire escape collapsed during a fire drill at the school, three children were killed, a dozen others seriously crippled, and Willie Stark “had Mason County in the palm of his hand.” A hero, the man who had tried to stop the political corruption that had led to the schoolhouse tragedy, he campaigned for the candidate running against the candidate of the machine.

Willie Stark’s speeches weren’t any good, but that did not matter. People came out to see the man who had tried to fight against the corruption that seemed to be everywhere. Then, in the next election, the state’s power brokers “persuaded Willie that he was the savior of the state.” A lot of people thought Willie had a special relationship with God from what had happened with the schoolhouse, and Willie himself believed he “had been summoned.” This, as Burden explains with rare insight into the character of ambitious politicians, was “nothing but the echo of a certainty and a blind compulsion within him.” Certain that he is destined to save the state from political corruption, Willie Stark tells everyone he can get to listen exactly what needs to be done, all the facts and figures about the “ratio between income tax and total income for the state,” all the arcane reasoning that supports a more “balanced tax program.” He tells them, in other words, what no one understands and what no one wants to hear about.

Jack Burden, who starts out covering his campaign as a reporter but becomes Stark’s most trusted advisor, insists that he has to get people excited, make them feel alive again. “That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything, but for Sacred Jesus’s sake, don’t try to improve their minds.” But Willie Stark believes that, if people will only listen, they will understand what he is trying to do. He believes it, until he finds out
from his campaign manager, a woman who has been hired by the very people Stark thinks he is fighting, that he has been had, that he is being used to split the vote of one candidate to elect the other.

“They’d have paid you to take the rap,” she tells him with scorn, “but they didn’t have to pay a sap like you. Oh, no, you were so full of yourself and hot air and how you are Jesus Christ, that all you wanted was a chance to stand on your hind legs and make a speech.”

Willie Stark, who had seldom taken a drink in his life, gets blind drunk. The next day, at the fairgrounds, where he is scheduled to give a speech, he tells the crowd a story, the story of a “hick,” the story of how some fine upstanding important men came in “a big fine car and say how they wanted him to run for Governor.” He was a hick, but, he tells the crowd, they are “hicks, too, and the’ve fooled you, too, a thousand times, just like they fooled me. For that’s what they think we’re for. To fool. Well, this time I’m going to fool somebody. I’m getting out of the race.” But instead of going quietly into the night, he is going to run for Governor again, and when he does, “I’m coming on my own and I’m coming for blood.” He keeps his word. He runs in the next election and becomes Governor.

The story of Willie Stark is the classic story of innocence lost, a story of how the fight against corruption brings with it a corruption of its own. The end, being admirable, makes the means, however evil, seem necessary. Willie Stark, determined to do good, cannot do it unless he is prepared to fight, and fighting, when you are in danger of losing, makes winning seem suddenly the only rule. It is not just Willie Stark; the same thing happens to everyone who goes with him, all the king’s men, whose lives and careers are tied up with his. Willie Stark wanted to do good, and he did. He gave the people what they wanted, and what they needed: free education, modern highways, a tax system in which the rich, finally, paid their fair share, and one more thing: a hospital, the best in the country, maybe the best in the world, bigger, finer than anything ever built; a hospital where, in Stark’s own words, “any bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime.”

The hospital is an obsession. Stark plans to name it after himself, tangible proof that he had done something important, something of value. But it is not enough to build it; he has to get someone to run it, and the best person to do it is Dr. Adam Stanton, Jack Burden’s boyhood friend. But Adam Stanton, whose father had been governor, and whose sister had once been engaged to Jack Burden, despised Willie Stark and all he stood for. Burden tells Stark that Stanton hates him, but Stark does not care. “I’m not asking him to love me. I’m asking him to run my hospital.” He tells Burden to change Stanton’s mind.

When they were young, Burden and Adam’s sister, Anne, would go for long walks together while Adam “spent his time reading Gibbon or Tacitus, for he was great on Rome back then.” This allusion to a young man’s appreciation of ancient, public, virtue establishes the difference, the radical difference, in the way Adam Stanton sees things. When Burden tells him that Willie Stark knows his weakness - “You want to do good, and he is going to let you do good in wholesale lots.” - Adam shakes his head and smiles, a “smile which did not forgive me but humbly asked me to forgive him for not being like me, for not being like everybody else, for not being like the world.” It is only when his sister, Anne, reminds him that he is a doctor, and that he should not put his pride before his duty, that he agrees to meet with Stark.

Later, standing with his sister and Jack Burden, listening to Willie Stark speak to a crowd in front of the Capitol, he remarks that Stark’s promises about what he is going to do are a bribe, a way to win popular approval, and power for himself. Stark will do anything to get what he wants, what they all want. Stark brags about it: “And if any man tries to stop me…I’ll break him. I’ll break him like that!” he cried, crashing his right fist into the left palm. “And I don’t care what I hit him with. Or how!” The crowd roared, and Burden yells into Anne’s ear: “He damned well means that.”

There is corruption everywhere, and Willie Stark knows it. He has Burden investigate a retired judge, a man Burden has always looked up to and believes incorruptible. Stark isn’t asking him to make something up. It is not necessary to frame anybody, “because the truth is always sufficient.” He was right. Judge Irwin had once, years earlier, taken a bribe, the only way he had to avoid foreclosure on his home. When this comes out, Irwin kills himself, and Burden’s mother tells her son that the judge he had revered, the judge he had now, to all intents and purposes, killed, was his father. The tragedy, the tale of corruption, does not end there. Governor Stanton had known what Judge Irwin had done, and had helped cover it up.

Burden’s father, Anne and Adam Stanton’s father, two of the most respected men in the state, men who had, both of them, done a great deal of good, had also done something bad; but so, also, had their children. Jack Burden had gone along with whatever Willie Stark had decided to do, even investigating people, like Judge Irwin, with whom he had been close. Anne Stanton, the woman Jack Burden had loved, and deep down, still did, had done something worse. She had become the mistress of Willie Stark. Burden’s reaction, when he finds this out, is described in a way no commonplace writer could have done. Robert Penn Warren does not describe the emotions - the hurt, the anger, the rage - Burden must have felt; he describes what Burden notices as he rushes out of the Capitol:

“It seemed forever down the length of white sun-glittering concrete which curled and swooped among the bronze statues and brilliant flower beds shaped like stars and crescents, and forever across the green lawn to the great swollen bulbs which were the trees, and forever up into the sky, where the sun poured down billows and surges of heat like crystalline lava to engulf you, for the last breath of spring was gone now and gone for good….”

Anne Stanton had become the mistress of Willie Stark. “That fact was too horrible to face, for it robbed me of something out of the past by which, unwittingly until that moment, I had been living.” Anne was not sorry for what she had done. Willie Stark wasn’t like “anybody else I had ever known.” She wasn’t sorry, “not for anything that’s happened.” Her brother, Adam, was sorry, sorry he had let himself be used, sorry he had listened to his sister and to Jack Burden when they told him he had a duty, if he wanted to do good, to take Willie Stark’s offer and become director of the new hospital. Adam Stanton was not like other people; he was not going to be the “paid pimp to his sister’s whore.” Taking his revenge, he shoots Willie Stark on the steps of the Capitol, and is then killed himself.

It was the same way Huey Long had been killed, killed by a doctor whose father was a judge. As he lay dying, Huey Long asked why he had been shot. Showing a deeper grasp of the relation of good and evil, Willie Stark tells Jack Burden, “If it hadn’t happened, it might - have been different - even yet.”

Jack Burden marries Anne Stanton and they move away; out, we are told in the novel’s final sentence, “into the convulsions of the world, out of history and into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” Which means, if it means anything, that they are going to live their own, private, lives, and only think of the good they can do each other, the kind of good that does not have evil as its price.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

--Marshal Zeringue