This year, I spent some quality reading time with what I think of now, in retrospect, as three sad men. I began the year with a gift from one of my students, Stoner, by John Williams. I was, perhaps, somewhat late in discovering this marvelous novel of university life, first published in 1965, but I’m grateful now to have had the experience of it, to have lived William Stoner’s life: to have been the shy farm boy entranced by the power of literature, the earnest professor, the long suffering spouse and the doting father, the middle-aged lover surprised by joy. It is a kind of enchantment, to be lured so completely into the life of this character. Something of the same can be said about Per Petterson’s 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses, an intensely hermetic account of a sixty-seven year old man’s self exile to a remote cabin in Norway. There’s as much cold, and dark introspection, and wood chopping as one might expect, but there is also tenderness and grief, and the land is beautiful. This year I also revisited Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. It was a novel I had loved in high school – as much for its portrait of pock-marked, chain-smoking, king-making Sadie Burke as for its larger-than-life depiction of “The Boss,” Willie Stark, or even its cynical and yet highly romantic, and loquacious, narrator. Having lived inside the beltway for nearly two decades now, I thought it time to reconsider, as an adult reader, whether All the King’s Men (written by a poet, after all, not a reporter) is indeed America’s best political novel. It is.
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