What's All This Then?

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All the King’s Men
by Robert Penn Warren

Field-Tested by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

on a plane above the Pacific Ocean

I was on a plane headed for Bangkok, and for nearly the entire flight, when I wasn't sleeping, I read All the King's Men. Some people have called it the greatest book written on American politics.

I wonder what the five-year-old who sat next to me would have thought of it. He seemed upset about something and apparently found relief in kicking the yellow bag under his seat, sometimes for ten-minute stretches. He went on like that, and the bag was dirty with his shoe prints, and I wished that airlines would dispense Ritalin freely. The boy's kicks seemed uncontrollable, even electrical. He might have understood the character Jack Burden's belief, eventually overturned, that life itself was the Great Twitch. There were a few Greats in All the King's Men. Aside from the Twitch, you had the Great Sleep, and Governor Willie Stark tried and failed to be a Great Man.

On that flight, I was headed for the ‘Great Doing Nothing for a Few Weeks.’ My destination was not so far off from something like Burden's Landing. My paternal family lives in a sort of enclave, subdivided from land owned by my late grandfather, who had once been a politician. I don't know much about his political days, aside from a story about how some campaign worker was rushed in with a knife in his belly. This was back in the days when electoral dirtiness was more physically forthcoming. Nothing exciting like that happens there anymore, and all I planned to do was to walk in the garden and play with the cat, a street smart Burmese mix, more Sadie Burke than Anne Stanton.

When I turned on the personal TV screen in front of me, a map came on, and I saw that I was a dot moving over international waters. I liked being nowhere. It heightened my imagination, however exaggerated, of sweltering, smoke-filled rooms where men spoke in languid drawls. I clearly saw a dark bay, where a young woman was scissor-kicking herself afloat, a young man watched, and rain was about to come. On that flight, I didn't think about my usual life in the U.S., and whatever was happening there seemed so far away. My idea of America was replaced by early 20th-century Louisiana. I had no other book with me. When I finished All the King's Men, I read it again.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the founding editor of Konundrum Engine Literary Review and a contributing writer at The Morning News. He lives in New York City.

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