Burden returns the narrative to what now appears its central event: the nighttime conversation with Irwin, in Burden’s Landing, in 1936. That night, Burden and Willie drove back to Mason City in the black Cadillac, and before falling asleep in the wee hours of that morning, Willie told Jack he was raising Jack’s salary in order to give Jack extra incentive to find dirt on Irwin. Jack repeated to Willie his assertion that, if any dirt existed on Irwin, it would be very, very difficult to find.
Now, finally, after three intervening chapters, we return to what is, in a sense, the central plot of the book—the attempt to discredit Irwin politically in order to further Willie’s desires. Jack again states that he has a hard time believing Irwin could have done anything wrong, but he throws himself into the work regardless.
Jack leaves Mason City the next day and heads to a bar in Baton Rouge, where he drinks and asks himself why the Judge might do something illegal at any point in his life. Jack answers his own question: out of ambition, fear, love, or money. Jack slowly ticks off the possibilities—the Judge was always confident in his ambitions, he was afraid of no one, and had no documented affairs. Thus Burden decides to focus on the issue of money, and to see if Irwin had ever done anything untoward in order to acquire his wealth.
Jack uses his “nose for news” and his historical acumen here as a way of beginning. It is important to note that Jack stopped being a graduate student and a reporter because he was, in a sense, too good at his job—he researched Cass so thoroughly he thought he could know the whole man, and he was fired from the paper because he was too good at reporting Willie’s successes.
Burden decides to go to his father, the Scholarly Attorney, in Baton Rouge in order to determine if his father can give him any information about Irwin’s former financial dealings. Burden knows that, owing to his father’s condition, it might be difficult to get any amount of true information out of the man. Burden goes to a bodega in a Latino neighborhood in Baton Rouge and waits for his father to enter—he sees his father after an hour or so has passed, and though his father does not initially recognize him, Burden convinces his father to take him (Burden) back to his father’s apartment, to talk.
One of the harder-to-believe aspects of Jack’s relationship with his father, the Scholarly Attorney, is the ease with which Jack manages to find the man, and the stability with which the Attorney appears to be insane. One has a hard time believing the Attorney can even care for himself, yet Burden describes his father as taking care of a “poor soul” himself—out of Christian charity.
On the walk up to the squalid apartment where his father lives, Burden hears his father reference a man named George—Burden asks who George is, and his father announces that George is an “unfortunate,” a man his father has taken in. Burden’s father takes bread to George for George’s art projects, which involves George chewing the bread and plastering it onto a sculpture of an angel—Burden’s father finds these sculptures to be deeply religious and artistically captivating, although Burden believes both men are truly insane.
George only crops up in this scene, but he’s an intriguing character, one who could essentially star in a story of his own. One wonders the extent to which George is merely insane; it also is quite possible he is merely sickened with grief, in exactly the manner that the Scholarly Attorney grieves—although the reason for the Attorney’s madness (Irwin’s affair) is only revealed much later.
Burden’s father says that George was once a trapeze artist whose wife died during their act, and that now George is mute, and he makes his religious art as a form of penance for his wife’s untimely demise. Burden does not wish to stay too long, nor to talk about George, and so asks his father whether Irwin was ever broke in his younger life. His father seems taken aback by the gruffness of this question, and launches into a religious tirade about the “filth” and “foulness” of human desires. Burden recognizes that he has only upset his father, and so, after attempting to calm him, leaves without gaining any actualy information about Irwin.
Again, there is mention of human “filth,” or the degradation of the human spirit. In this way both Jack’s father and Willie—Jack’s “father figure,” along with Irwin—are concerned with “dirtying their hands” in the pursuit of earthly ends. Yet all these men have taken radically different paths—Irwin has retired to the quiet of his estate; Willie tries to build his hospital to atone for corruption; and the Attorney retreats from the world.
But on his way down the stairs, Burden realizes that his father became upset because he does, in all likelihood, know some piece of information about Irwin’s past—and thus Jack believes that, if he keeps on digging, he will find dirt on the Judge. Jack then shifts the narration to a football game he is watching with the Boss—a game presumably at Louisiana State University, where the Boss’s son Tom is a star quarterback.
Yet all Jack needed from his father was the simplest hint that Irwin had possibly engaged in something untoward at one time—and Jack’s received more than enough information in that regard here. What Jack finds out later, however, is that Irwin wronged his father for totally non-political, but rather romantic, reasons.
Tom does extremely well in the game, and the Boss comes up to him, afterward, to congratulate him. The Boss is angry that Lucy still wishes to keep Tom from playing football, believing it is too dangerous, and Jack, though he is caught up in the excitement of the game, realizes he must drive to Burden’s Landing that weekend to talk to Anne and Adam about Irwin’s past—the three have decided to meet up and spend time together back in the Stanton’s old home. Jack also reveals at this juncture that Adam and Anne’s father used to be Governor of the state, long ago—thus the Stantons, like the Burdens and Irwins, represent the old political hierarchy of the state, par excellence.
Tom’s football success is one of the few givens up till this point in the novel—Willie’s political fortunes rise and fall, and his family moves closer together or farther apart based on Willie’s behavior with other women, but Tom keeps playing in, and helping win, football games. Willie realizes all too late in the novel that he depends on his son far too much in this regard—that all he wants from Tom is for him to succeed on the field, come what may in Tom’s personal life.
Before Adam is set to arrive at the Stanton home, Burden is there with Anne, and though they horse around and build a fire, before long Jack loses patience and asks Anne, flat-out, if Irwin was ever broke as a young man. Anne senses that Jack is asking this question for Willie’s sake, and reiterates her position that Willie is a bad man, a politician who will stop at nothing to get what he wants—other people’s reputations be damned. Anne also tells Jack that she has met with Willie to discuss plans for Willie to give Anne some funds for a children’s home in Baton Rouge—a charitable project to which Anne has devoted a great deal of her time.
Anne is a shrewd political operator herself, although she has not chosen politics as her career of choice. She understands immediately what Jack is getting after, and she wants to put a stop to it. She also can’t bear the thought that anyone in the Landing was engaged in a kind of back-room politicking she finds so abhorrent in the Stark administration. Anne also feels “used” by Jack, since she thought they were to spend a fine weekend together, the three of them, like in old times.
Adam then tramps in, bringing his characteristic good cheer, and he doesn’t seem to sense that Anne and Jack have just had an argument. After welcoming Adam back to Burden’s Landing, Jack asks his friend whether he recalls Irwin ever needing money as a young man—this, over Anne’s objections. Adam answers that, as a matter of fact, he does remember his father, the Governor, having a conversation with Irwin, a fight even, about money a long time ago, in the nineteen-teens.
Adam, at this point, stands in stark contrast to Anne, in terms of his political sensibilities—he does not understand, at first, that Jack is attempting to dig up information on Irwin to use for political ends, and anyway Adam does not realize that Irwin’s problems with money long ago could point to instances of Irwin’s graft.
Adam asks Jack why Jack wants to know this about Irwin, and Jack replies, again over Anne’s objection, that Willie wants to know. Adam seems also not to like Willie, thinking him to be an unscrupulous leader in the way Anne does, but Adam believes that it’s not against the law to be broke, and does not see the further political implications of Irwin’s long-ago financial past. The three spend the evening together, dancing, singing, and trying to have fun, although Anne seems residually mad at Jack—and the next day, Jack drives back to Baton Rouge.
Nevertheless, the three manages to recreate, at least in part, the fun times they had at the Landing as children. As the novel goes on, it becomes harder and harder for Adam to “cut loose” and forget the demands of his work, and Anne will continue to worry about him—worry that he is cutting himself off from society and from friends and family who support him.
At the capitol, Jack overhears a conversation between Duffy and Sadie, in which Duffy claims that the Boss wants to put six million dollars of taxpayer money into the new free hospital he has proposed building. Duffy tells Sadie that he has a friend, Gummy Larson, who can fix this up for the Governor—but Sadie knows that Gummy would include a kickback for Duffy, and that Duffy wants as much of that six million as he can get his hands on. While overhearing this conversation, Jack gets a phone call from Anne, who tells him that she knows how Irwin got his money—he married a wealthy woman. Anne implies that Irwin did not have to do anything illegal to get this money, and that Jack will not be able to tarnish Irwin’s reputation for Willie’s political gain. Anne hangs up the phone.
This becomes one of the primary sources of drama in the remainder of the novel—the attempts by Duffy to gain a favorable contract for the hospital, so that he and his friend Larson can benefit, and the attempts by Willie to prevent this corrupt contract in order to preserve the sanctity of his hospital project. Once Willie asks that Adam become Director of the hospital, then, Willie has thoroughly tied together all the dramatic threads of the text—which means that, along with Willie’s relationship with Anne, all the “powder keg” is in place for the final dramatic event—Willie’s assassination.
Jack sets about investigating to see if Anne’s claims are true. He goes to La Salle County, where a big part of the Irwin landholdings are located, to see how Irwin financed the purchase of his property. It seems that the property went into foreclosure in 1914, and that Irwin had married Mabel Carruthers, his second wife, in 1913—but this to Jack proves nothing, since Irwin might have waited to ask his second wife for money to pay off his debts. Jack keeps digging.
Now Jack is deep in the kind of historical research that seemingly only he can do. He realizes that the Judge’s back-room deals just before World War I might point to a potential bribe—interestingly, it was later, in the Great War, that the Judge made a name for himself as a great hero and defender of his country.
After Jack keeps digging for a while, however, he realizes that, although Mabel came from family money, she also spent a great deal of that family money before marrying Irwin—in fact, after meeting with an old family friend of Mabel’s, Jack realizes that Mabel had married Irwin thinking Irwin had money—and thus Irwin could not have paid off his 1914 foreclosure with Mabel’s money. Jack begins to realize that Irwin must have done something else to pay off that debt.
Furthermore, Jack senses that the Judge’s weakness lies in his second marriage, to a woman who appeared very wealthy. Just as Mrs. Burden inherited a good deal of wealth and became an entrenched member of society in the Landing, so too does Irwin make a name and a fortune for himself and parlay that into political influence in this wealthy enclave, Jack’s hometown.
Irwin, who was the state’s attorney general in 1914, was given a job by the American Electric Power Company in 1915—a job that paid a great deal of money. Jack, upon further digging, realized that Irwin had also been given a certain amount of American Electric stock in 1914—and Jack set about finding out what Irwin had done to American Electric, in his capacity as attorney general, to cause the company to become so kindly disposed toward him.
Jack has struck the gold that will eventually show Irwin’s involvement in a bribe. Typically speaking, one needs only to follow the most obvious trail of influence or money, and Jack has done just that—he has found a corporation who wanted something of the government, and a man, Irwin, who as Attorney General was in a position to help that company out.
But at this point, Jack reaches a dead end. He can’t find a link between American Electric and Irwin—not, that is, until one day, when he is walking along, a name from his weeks and weeks of research and digging comes back to him—the name Mortimer Littlepaugh, the chief counsel for American Electric. Jack does some digging and realizes that Littlepaugh died in 1914 of accidental causes, apparently falling off a high railing of a hotel in which he was staying. Jack decides to visit with his sister, still alive, Lily Littlepaugh, to find out more about Mortimer’s life.
Littlepaugh, on the other hand, is the characteristic “other man” in this arrangement—he has done nothing wrong, but has nevertheless been chewed up and spit out by a political deal that involves nothing about him. Mortimer is an example of the kinds of casualties that crop up when political back-room deals take place—there is a always a “little man,” a “nobody,” to take the fall.
Jack eventually finds Lily in a very small apartment in Memphis, TN, where she lives in squalor and seems to be some kind of card-reader or clairvoyant. Jack humors her and, in a clairvoyant session, tries to get Lily to talk about Mortimer, begging her to admit that Mortimer’s death was not an accident, but that, instead, Mortimer had flung himself off the balcony of the hotel (if it had been an accident, Lily could not have received his life insurance policy from the insurance company).
Lily, not unlike the Scholarly Attorney, has come out of a period of real trauma in her life, following the death of her brother, by resorting to a kind of psycho-babble. Whereas the Attorney’s is religious, Lily’s is influenced by Tarot and by the reading of fortunes—yet she quickly “snaps to” when Jack mentions her brother’s death.
Jack tells Lily there is nothing to worry about now—the insurance company will never know—and he pays her three hundred dollars for any information about Mortimer. This seems to jog Lily’s memory, and she admits that Mortimer went to Governor Stanton about the “coal affair”—a sweetheart deal that Irwin had arranged between a coal company and the American Electric company, which Mortimer believed to be illegal, but which Irwin wanted to happen in order to ingratiate himself with American Electric and to make enough money to pay off his personal debts. Lily admits, also, that she has a suicide note written by Mortimer—she goes into a back room in her small apartment and finds it for Jack.
As it turns out, this is exactly the quid pro quo that Jack was looking for—and it was more or less hidden in plain sight. The Attorney General, Irwin, did very little to hide the fact that his office chose to help out a company, American Power, that ended up giving Irwin a job some time later. To an extent, Irwin seemed to benefit from the perception that he could do no wrong politically, that he could not be bribed, that he could not be corrupted. This was enough to ensure that his corruption would go unnoticed.
Mortimer, in the letter, repeats exactly what Lily claims—that Irwin allowed the sweetheart deal between the Southern Belle coal company and American Electric to go through, to American Electric’s business advantage, as a quid-pro-quo that would give Irwin a job at American Electric and a bonus in stock compensation. Mortimer, who knew about this graft, attempted to go to Governor Stanton, but Stanton covered it up and denied any wrongdoing. Mortimer admits in the letter to killing himself and pretending it is an accident so that his sister may at least have some money on which to live.
Mortimer’s suicide is one of several in the novel. Both Irwin and Adam also commit suicide, and do so in order to right wrongs they perceive in the world. In Irwin’s case, he is attempting to atone for his sins of long ago; in Adam’s, he is attempting to punish Willie for “sinning” with Anne. And in Mortimer’s case, he is hoping merely to help his sister any way he can—in this case, by providing her with the insurance money she will receive after his death.
Burden says that he will take the letter, quickly, to have it “photostatted” (copied), so that he can use it for his advantage. Burden asks that Lily make a statement on the record, in front of a notary, and at a later date, verifying everything she has told Burden, and promises her more money if she does so. Burden then tells the reader that, as a historical researcher, he loves the truth, and he believes he has found a new piece of the truth regarding Irwin, who for so long has pretended to be a thoroughly upright citizen.
These Photostats are necessary to make sure that Lily’s testimony would hold up in a court of law—not that it would be used in a court of law. Jack knows that it is merely the threat of such court action that is typically sufficient to make the incriminated parties (here, Irwin), confess and do what Willie wishes.