All the King's Men begins with the sentence, "Mason City."
According to the narrator, if you want to go to Mason City you take "Highway 58" and travel "northeast" from a unnamed city. If you aren't careful, the shiny new road will hypnotize you and you'll get into an accident. Anyhow, if you don't get hypnotized, you'll keep going deeper "into the dazzle."
The narrator, who will introduce himself in a moment, is talking about a mirage
Eventually, the countryside will change, "the big cotton fields" will disappear, and so too the little shacks.
Instead you'll find small red hills, cotton patches, and cornfields.
Long ago there were forests of pine tree. When a sawmill was put up after the Civil War, the forests eventually disappeared, along with the jobs the mill had brought to the area.
Many of the people who lost their jobs stayed in Mason City.
And now it seems we've arrived in Mason City, a poor southern town, or at least it was three years ago, when the narrator (who will introduce himself in a moment) was there. The year is 1936.
(We're now heading into a flashback.)
Three years ago, the narrator is in the Cadillac with "the Boss," his wife and son, "Mr. Duffy," and Sugar-Boy. Another car contains reporters and a photographer, and Sadie Burke, secretary to the Boss.
Sugar-Boy is the Boss's driver, and he drives like a maniac, which is pleasing to the Boss.
(Sugar-Boy also has a stutter and is fond of the word "bastard" which he stutters.)
The narrator accuses us of thinking Sugar-Boy is a "Negro, from his name." But no, Sugar-Boy is a very short Irish man, under thirty, whose real name is O'Sheean. He's always sucking on sugar, hence the nickname.
Sugar-Boy, the Boss, and the Boss's son (Tom), who's around eighteen, are in the front. Tom is a football star.
From the backseat, the back of Tom's head looks just like Willie Stark's. We learn that Willie is the Boss.
In the back seat with the narrator we have Lucy Stark (the Boss's wife) and Tiny Duffy.
Since it's Saturday, "the square" is crowded, full of wagons, and shoppers.
When they get to the soda fountain shop, the group enters.
The presence of Willie Stark causes a great commotion as he is apparently a big political figure. A calendar on the wall features his picture.
The narrator has seen this picture everywhere.
Willie notices a rough looking man named Malaciah at the bar. He talks to him and learns Malaciah's son is in jail for killing another man in a fight.
After that interaction, Willie and his crew drink some cokes.
Meanwhile, people are begging Willie to make a speech.
Willie says he isn't here to speak, but instead to see his "pappy."
As he and his entourage make their way back to the Cadillac, a group of people follows.
Willie walks silently to the courthouse and goes up the steps.
The narrator watches Willie, and when he sees his "eyes bulge" and "glitter" he knows he's about to speak.
Sure enough, the Boss begins to make a speech.
His speech is about how he's not going to make a speech, because he's here to see his father.
He's taking the day off from politics, and he isn't going to ask them to give him anything, or vote for him.
As he walks back down the steps, everybody claps and cheers.
The Boss and his entourage get back in their cars, and the narrator is in the backseat of the Cadillac.
The narrator remembers when he first met Willie, fourteen years earlier in 1922.
We go into another flashback: we're actually in a flashback within a flashback.
Willie was the County Treasurer of Mason County back in 1922. He was in the (still nameless) city to talk about a "bond issue." He wanted a bond passed to provide funds to build a new schoolhouse.
The narrator was in "Slade's pool hall" with Tiny Duffy (then Tax Assessor), waiting for Alex Michel (then deputy sheriff).
The narrator was a journalist writing for the Chronicle. We learn that this newspaper favored Governor Joe Harris, Tiny Duffy's boss.
The narrator was at Slade's to get some information from Alex. It was morning, in June or July.
When Alex showed up, he had Willie Stark with him. Willie was nothing special to look at, wearing a cheap suit and following behind the impressive looking Alex Michel.
Alex introduced Willie as a "bookworm" and "teacher's pet." It's then announced that Willie married a teacher.
When Willie reached to shake the narrator's hand, the narrator was slightly confused because he felt like he had always known Willie.
He managed to lift his hand and Willie took it and said, "Glad to meetcha, Mr. Burden."
(Now we know that our narrator is named Mr. Burton)
Looking back now, Mr. Burden remembers that twelve years after he met Willie, he asked Willie if he had winked at him that first day. Willie didn't give him a straight answer.
Mr. Burden does remember that at that first meeting Willie did not wink at Tiny Duffy.
Back in 1922, they all sat down, and Duffy ordered beers. Willie said he didn't want one.
Duffy tried to pressure him, but Willie wouldn't be swayed. Apparently, his wife, Lucy, wasn't fond of booze.
Slade said he wasn't going to make anyone drink beer. Willie accepts the orange soda that Slade offers him.
The men talk about the bond issue.
Mr. Burden tells us that the bond passed, and Willie's school was built.
(Flashback within the flashback is now over. We're back to the original flashback.)
Willie turns to Mr. Jack Burden and tells him to investigate the situation with Malaciah's son, and get the young man a lawyer.
Duffy asks if the Boss knows the identity of the murdered boy. The Boss says he doesn't know and doesn't care.
Soon they arrive at Willie's dad's house.
It looks like an average farmhouse, plain and unpainted.
It does have indoor plumbing installed, and other amenities that can't be seen from the outside.
The unpainted house will make for much better publicity photos than a painted one.
Willie's dad, who is aged, and has pale blue eyes. He is waiting for Willie and company on the steps.
The Boss greets him, and then Lucy does. Willie's dad looks like he's going to pat Lucy on the back, but he doesn't.
Jack explains to us that Lucy understands his affection without the pat. She and Old Man Stark, a long time widower, bonded long ago when she and Willie were first married.
They would sit together without talking while Willie was up in his room, pouring over law books. The two shared the fact that they both had and didn't have Willie.
Willie introduces Tiny, then asks his dad if he remembers Jack Burden. (He does.)
They sit in the dusty, seemingly ancient parlor.
Then a servant brings in three glass, and some water.
Lucy and Sadie each take a glass, and the men share the third one.
Soon the photographer gets impatient and suggests they begin the photo shoot.
Willie stands on the steps, and the photographer decides that Willie's dog since childhood should be in the shot.
The dog is practically prehistoric and doesn't come when Willie calls. Willie asks Jack to pick up the huge dog.
The dog's breath is so hideous that Jack wilts when he gets a whiff. Finally, Tom Stark and a reporter help Jack lift up the dog.
They can't prop the beast up, so Willie has to sit on the steps for the photo.
After a brief recovery period, Jack leads them upstairs to Willie's old room. This was his idea for the photo shoot – to have the Boss at his old desk with his old books.
Jack thinks that Willie the child is what's missing from the room, and his imagines what Willie must have been like as a child.
Willie gets ready for the shot, and then the photographer begins his work.
Jack knows they don't need him, so he leaves.
Jack goes out past the chicken coops, and the barn, and the stables, and watches the sunset. He wonders about the night's sleeping arrangements, and then pulls out his flask and takes a drink.
He hears the gate open behind him, but doesn't look to see who it is.
If he doesn't look, it doesn't exist. Jack explains that this is part of the "Idealist" philosophy he was following at this time. (See his "Character Analysis" for more.)
The person Jack is ignoring asks Jack for a drink. Jack tells him to take it from his pant's pocket.
It's Willie. He needed a drink and couldn't get one around his dad.
Sadie Burke comes rushing through the gate.
She has something to say about a certain Judge Irwin, but is too out of breath to talk.
We get a description of Sadie: she has on high heels and a tight skirt. Her face is lightly pockmarked, and she has extremely short, wild hair.
Willie tells her to "spill it." This infuriates her and they begin to fight, something they do often.
Jack looks away from the scene. Even though he knows they think of him as "furniture," he thinks it's rude to stare.
Finally, Sadie tells Willie that Judge Irwin has announced his endorsement for someone named Callahan (and therefore not his endorsement for whoever Willie wants the Judge to endorse).
The boss can't believe it. He tells Sadie to get everybody out of the house, which Sadie quickly does.
Jack stretches out in a hammock, and Willie ponders the problem.
Jack hears something in the distance, and realizes it's Sugar-Boy, at target practice.
Then they all have dinner, and Jack admires Lucy.
When everybody is completely stuffed, the Boss announces that he and Jack and Sugar-Boy are leaving.
Lucy gives Willie a knowing look, and then Old Man Stark tells Willie he wants him to stay home.
Willie isn't having it; he prepares to leave.
His dad suggests that if it's business, he understands.
Willie says it's not business, but pleasure.
Then Sugar-Boy, Jack Burden, and Willie take off in the Cadillac for a place called Burden's Landing.
It's already about 9pm and Burden's Landing is 260 miles, round trip.
It's going to be a long night.
Jack Burden is related to the people for whom Burden's Landing is named. We learn that he was born there and grew up there.
The air in Burden's Landing is "salty" and fishy, and this time of year it's also hot.
Jack imagines his mother in bed with Theodore Murrell, the younger, blonde man to whom his mother is married. Theodore's not Jack's first stepfather.
Jack thinks of the "live oaks and magnolias" further out past his mother's house at the Stanton house.
It's empty because Anne and Adam Stanton (you'll hear all about them soon) live "in town" now, and their dad is dead.
Judge Irwin's house is nearby as well. Jack is sure that's where they are going.
At this point Jack breaks from his musings and asks the Boss what he plans to say to the Judge.
Willie says he'll know when the time comes.
Jack says that the Judge isn't easily frightened, and he has the memories to prove it. Looks like he has known the Judge for a long time, and is sure he won't "scare easy."
Then Jack hints that calling on old men in the middle of the night is undignified.
Willie, who we now learn is Governor (of an unnamed Southern state), says that to get anything "worth doing" done, you will have to give up some dignity.
Then he starts talking about when he becomes president, how nice it will be for Jack and Sugar-Boy, and how he will appoint Tiny Duffy as "Secretary of the Bedchamber of Jack Burden."
Jack says Willie will "go down in history."
They both laugh and then are quiet until they get to Burden's Landing.
Willie asks Jack to tell Sugar-Boy how to get to Irwin's, reminding Jack that his "pals" live here.
This sends Jack into another flashback, this time about Anne and Adam Stanton.
Their father (a widower) used to be the Governor, and they lived in his big white house in Burden's Landing.
They were Jack's friends.
They played, fished, and swam together. One moment Anne was a child, and then all of a sudden she wasn't any more. Jack fell in love with her, but they never got together.
Anne lives alone now, and even though she doesn't look bad, it's evident that she has aged.
She always looks like she's trying to remember something, and Jack wonders what.
Jack has the opposite problem – he remembers what doesn't want to recollect.
People would be better off without memories, Jack reasons.
He "was a student of history […] in a university" and that is what he learned.
Anne, Jack thinks, is "an old maid."
Adam is a "famous surgeon." He and Jack are friends but no longer fish together.
Judge Irwin is a friend of Jack's family, and he taught Jack to shoot, hunt, and ride. He also read history to Jack.
After Jack's father, Ellis Burden, left, the Judge was a father to Jack. (Judge Irwin was more of a father than Jacks mother's husbands.)
Jack gives Sugar-Boy directions and expects to see his young self on the street corner of the town as they drive through it.
He also imagines the voices of the older townspeople passing judgment on him and his family.
They get to Judge Irwin's house and Willie demands that Jack rouse the Judge.
The Judge comes to the door, sees Jack, and welcomes him.
Then Willie pops up from behind the door. The Judge goes cold. Willie basically forces himself in against the Judge's wishes.
Willie leads them to the Judge's library, and makes himself at home.
Judge Irwin doesn't sit, and doesn't speak.
Finally, Willie asks if Jack can pour him some of the Judge's booze.
The Judge says he didn't know Jack was Willie's "body servant."
Jack wants to smack the Judge upside the head, but doesn't.
Willie laughs and gets up, pours Jack a drink, and forces it on Jack.
Willie explains to the Judge that he isn't a gentleman, and then the sparring begins. Jack retreats to watch, and thinks "to hell with both of them."
Willie asks the Judge to confirm that he did endorse the other guy. Judge confirms the rumor.
Apparently, Judge Irwin e found out some things about Masters, Willie's pick for the office, and can no longer endorse him.
Furthermore, Irwin can't endorse someone who answers to Willie.
Willie asks how it would feel if Irwin lost his job.
The Judge responds that nobody can bully him into doing anything.
Willie says he didn't try. He's just wants the Judge to know that just like somebody found out Master's dirty secret, somebody can find out dirt on Callahan.
The Judge holds firm and tells Willie to leave.
On the way out, Willie asks the Judge again to change his mind, then tells Jack to go.
The Judge then makes another crack about Jack being Willie's slave.
Jack is mad, because now he has to respond: he warns the Judge not to tell anybody they came or people will think he was crafting shady political deals in the night.
On the road back to Mason City, the Boss tells Jack he needs to dig up dirt on Irwin.
Jack doesn't think there is any dirt to dig.
Willie says everybody has dirt. And he wants Jack to find the dirt on the Judge, "and make it stick."
Jack thinks that now – three years after that night – Masters, Adam Stanton, Judge Irwin, and the Boss, are all dead.
Jack followed the Boss's advice, and "made it stick."