Lord Acton famously insisted that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Turning that aphorism inside out suggests that “Absolute corruption empowers absolutely.”
And whom might be empowered, exactly? That’s easy: novelists and historians, who for centuries have been stirred by the gaudy potential of all the sins that flesh is heir to.
Corruption is social malaria, always burbling within the immune system. Then at moments it explodes with the vengeance of all those suppressed genetics. And it’s feeling like that’s exactly what’s ailing us right now, since it’s more than the tabloids that brim with news of corruption in all its flowerings — political, personal, moral, social. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite books on the subject, our First Annual Lord Acton edition of Reading the Headlines.
O Albany! and Roscoe, William Kennedy
Since there’s a bit of the noisome emanating from Albany these days, let’s start with two works of the great William Kennedy. Kennedy, now in his 80s, has made New York’s capital — its corruption, its characters, its emotional chaos — his literary home. O Albany!, his history of the city, is a rollicking urban biography that makes for irresistible reading; even if the city holds no particular fascination for you, Kennedy’s portrait of it will.
As Thomas Flanagan pointed out in a New York Review of Books essay, the humble capital isn’t one of “those great cities which have given modern literature its characterizing images, not the London of Dickens and Eliot, nor the Dublin of Joyce nor the Chicago of Dreiser and Bellow.”
But as a pocket-sized city, Albany’s very smallness yields a Byzantine intensity: “In Kennedy’s Albany, everyone knows everyone else, even if they do not know themselves. They have been cheating and screwing one another for decades. They know each other’s bloodlines, alliances, vices, secret lyricisms, schemes for survival or success.”
And I love the fact that, as a reader has noted, when you look in the index for “vote fraud” the instruction is simple: “See Democratic Party.”
Roscoe is the seventh novel in Kennedy’s Albany cycle; set just after V-J Day, it turns on the struggles of Roscoe Conway, the ultimate fixer, who is locked in a struggle with a Republican governor bent on exposing the Democratic machine’s parade of extra-curricular activities, which include gambling, pay-offs, and an occasional beat-down. Kennedy’s wonderful language sometimes tends toward the mock-fustian, as when Roscoe says “As I am incapable of truth, so I am incapable of lying, which is, as we all know, the secret of the truly successful politician.”
Corruption and Market in Contemporary China, Yan Sun
One of our great competitive comforts is that the global success of the Chinese is marked by endemic corruption: “Sure their economy is booming, but the whole system is run by graft.”
For those equivocators, Yan Sun’s rigorous analysis – she is a professor at the City University of New York – is a wonderful anodyne. Sun traces the relationship between modernization and corruption with cool objectivity. A review by the director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls it a “…new benchmark” and praises her analysis of how the “breakdown of political accountability and the distortion of incentives have contributed to widespread abuse of power and looting by Chinese officials in the 1990s.”
While some argue that a relaxed central government is an impediment to crookedness, the book reveals that “economic liberalization under authoritarian rule is proved to have bred new and more pernicious forms of corruption.”
All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
Arguably our finest novel about corruption, this also may be our finest fictional consideration of charismatic leadership and a uniquely American brand of pitchfork popularism. The novel tracks the arc of Willie Stark, a wildly flawed and deeply loved southern governor — a character modeled loosely (well, maybe not so loosely) on Huey Long.
The narrator is Jack Burden, loyal aide to Stark, former journalist, relentless questioner of human behavior, failed PhD candidate, developer of the Great Twitch Theory, and a prototype of the reporter-turned-political-consultant.
All the King’s Men is also our best novel by a poet, and one of the few terrific novels to safely make the journey to a great movie (we mean the one with Broderick Crawford, of course, not the sad clone with Sean Penn).
Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
John Updike’s review in The New Yorker described this novel as “… seven hundred and sixty-six pages of fiction too aggrieved and grim to be called satire.” I think that’s genre-splitting; this book is Mark McGwire-sized satire.
Ngũgĩ is one of Africa’s greatest novelists; he sets this biting and sprawling novel in an invented African country, Aburira, that in its litany of busy griefs sounds, sadly enough, un-invented.
Wizard of the Crow appeared after a twenty-plus year silence on the part of the author, during which time Ngũgĩ was imprisoned in his native Kenya and sought exile in the United States. The bitter fruits of his drought pour out of the book; Updike describes Aburira as a “fantasia of corruption and malformation.” It’s commanded by a nameless Ruler with a telegraphic wardrobe, whose suits, tailored in Europe, have pinstripes “made of tiny letters that read MIGHT IS RIGHT.”
Fictional nations, of course, have a long comic history as projective territory for the mockery of corruption, stretching from Swift’s Lilliput to the Marx Brothers’ “Freedonia,” from the “Duchy of Grand Fenwick” in Leonard Wibberly’s priceless The Mouse that Roared to Absurdistan (see below). Ngũgĩ’s geographic neologism stands up to them all.
Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet
The corruption classic, starring Al Pacino in the true story of a rebel, a slightly hippie-ish New York City cop who goes undercover to bust open the so-called blue wall of silence. The greatness of the movie lies in the miscibility of actor and subject. For Pacino, Serpico came between the monumental bookends of The Godfather and Godfather II; for New York, Serpico came at a period of its most infamous ungovernability.
Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003, James L. Merriner
Perhaps, just perhaps, you may have heard the phrase “Chicago politics” uttered once or twice in the last presidential campaign. And since. This is the seminal work on the subject, a scholarly but not parched history of the century-long struggle between reformers (mockingly called goo-goos, as in good-government types) and various manifestations of the machine. Merriner reveals the cultural and socio-economic nuances of the historical push-pull.
Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart
This is a ribald and gleeful skewering of corruption in post-communist Russia and mature-capitalist America. Shteyngart has the observant energy of a deracinated tummler, and in Misha Vainberg he has the right character for his boundless cross-cultural mash-upping.
Misha is the obese progeny of a Russian oligarch, and it’s his struggle to return to America and its gluttony of consumer delights that serves as the loose-limbed trajectory of the novel. Unable to get back directly, Misha ends up trying the back door of Absurdistan, a country unfortunately situated between Iran and Russia.
In a Wag the Dog premise, Absurdisan doesn’t need a Minister of Corruption; the whole government qualifies. It is a start-up country run by gangsters in bed with a faux Halliburton (Golly Burton) who are aiming for millions in American rescue dollars. Who isn’t?
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner
Has there ever been a more knife-edged or prescient subtitle? Twain and his friend Warner managed to coin a seminal phrase — or more accurately, wrest it from Shakespeare’s King John and lacquer it for the delectation of future generations with the supreme confidence that any reader, at any future time, would have no trouble finding their “today” in the novel.
It’s one of those find-the-contemporary-analogue books, because just about every example it displays of greed, inherited entitlement, real estate speculation, mendacity, lobbying, social climbing, and impenitence finds a modern manifestation. As one power broker says to another “There is no country in the world, sir, that pursues corruption as inveterately as we do.”
The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides and
Lehman Brothers Examiner’s Report, Anton R. Valukas
Reading the Headlines has no illusions that anyone has the time to read these in parallel. So we’ll leave you with what the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth said about both. No, sorry, make that about Thucydides alone:
“[He] traces the spreading corruption of power … finally to its corruption of the individual leaders, the conflicts and defeats of conscience, and the monstrous growth and ultimate destruction of individual wills.”
And finally, a recommendation from that legendary author, journalist, and student of urban venality, Pete Hamill:
Hamill rightly calls it a “classic.” Written in 1905, it collects a series of talks given by Tammany Boss (and ironically named) George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt is a kind of urban Machiavelli, with observations like: “Why don’t reformers last in politics? Because they are amateurs and you must be a pro. Politicians do not have to steal to make a living because a crook is a fool and a politician can become a millionaire through honest graft.”