At Heaven’s Gate by Robert Penn Warren is worthwhile hunk of American realism with extraordinary characters. It centers on a young woman’s quest for liberation as she tries to move out from under the domination of her wealthy and powerful father. Warren savages the materialism of the 1920s and the greed and corruption that inevitably accompany the lust for money and power. A second narrative is built in to the book. This first-person account of a backwoodsman’s journey from violence to redemption would make a fine novella on its own.
This is the novel that Warren wrote just before All the King’s Men. I recently re-read that book and found every bit as masterful and brilliant as I did the first time. I wanted to see where that masterpiece had come from and get a sense of Warren’s development as a writer.
At Heaven’s Gate doesn’t hit the high mark of All the King’s Men, but it’s still a fine piece of work with some narrative twists and those amazing sentences that Warren rolls out. A few story elements are surprisingly melodramatic, but that said, many of the scenes remain indelible. Even with its flaws, this dark and scorching vision of a rotting America will haunt and harrow you.