I love to see virtue rewarded, in fiction and of course even more in real life.
One of my favorite examples of virtue rewarded comes from one of my very favorite passages from one of my very favorite novels, the brilliant, haunting novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. How I love this book.
I often think about this passage. It describes how the character Willie Stark, when he becomes a powerful politician, intervenes to reward a bartender who once stood up for him in a tough moment.
Now, I do need to explain it and set it up, and I’m worried that this process may be like the joke you have to explain – if you have to explain it, it loses its funniness. But I simply can’t resist.
I’m going to explain the context for the characters, and you should also know that there’s a legend that toads carried mythical gems in their heads that were an antidote to poison, and “jack” is a slang term for money.
To set the scene: the main character, Willie Stark, goes on to become a hugely influential and powerful politician. But at the time of this passage, he’s just starting out, he’s a nobody, and he goes to a bar to meet with some local bigwigs, Alex and Mr. Duffy. The men are sitting there, and the bartender, named Slade, comes over to ask them what to drink. Willie doesn’t want to order a drink.
The bigwigs begin to badger Willie into taking a drink, making fun of him, trying to bully and embarrass him into having a beer.
Slade looked at Alex and he looked at Mr. Duffy and he looked at Willie. He flicked his towel halfheartedly in the direction of a cruising fly, and said: “I sells beer to them as wants it. I ain’t making nobody drink it.”
Perhaps that was the moment when Slade made his fortune. How life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture, and the toad bears a jewel in its forehead, and the meaning of moments passes like the breeze that scarcely ruffles the leaf of the willow.
. . .
How did Slade get the license so quickly? How did he get the lease when half the big boys in the business were after that corner? How did he get the jack for the leather chairs and the string ensemble? Slade never confided in me, but I figure Slade got his reward for being an honest man.
Sometimes it seems like the karma police aren’t doing their jobs, and it’s very satisfying when we see someone stand up to do the right thing, and get recognized and rewarded for it.