Ross Lockridge Jr.
Publication date 1947
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We read books to be entertained, as often as not - well, more often than not. That's not the only reason why we read, of course. We read for culture, to exercise our muscles of appreciation or because we are curious about how other people live. We read because we are hoping to learn a little something about ourselves in order to help us make some sense of this world, which makes such little sense at times.
Every so often, we come across a book that has the potential to change our lives because it covers all the bases.
In October of '99 I read an appreciation of the novel Raintree County in The New Yorker. I'd never heard of the book or its author, Ross Lockridge, Jr. But the article caught my interest for several reasons.
On the evening of Saturday evening, March 6th, 1948, Ross Lockridge, Jr., 33, seemed to have a lot to be happy about. Raintree County, his first novel, had just reached number one on the best seller lists and was racking up rave reviews. It had won an enormous movie contract with MGM, had been Main Selection of Book-of-the-Month Club, and was excerpted in Life magazine.
Lockridge also had a devoted wife and four children. That night, he told his wife that he was going out to mail some letters. On the way back, he said, he planned to drop by his parents' house to listen to the high school basketball regionals.
Lockridge's wife became concerned when he failed to return home at a reasonable hour. She called his parents and was told he hadn't been there at all that evening. Really worried now, she went out to the garage - and found him in the front seat of his car, slumped behind the steering wheel with the door opened and his feet sticking out. The engine was running. Lockridge was dead.
No one knew what had driven Lockridge to kill himself, but the book that he left us, said the New Yorker article, could be called one of the classic American novels, perhaps even the elusive "Great American Novel."
As I say, all this piqued my interest. I made a mental note to look for Raintree County the next time I was at the library.
As it happened, my band was scheduled to play a gig at a place called The Court Jester, a pub in a nearby town. The Jester's décor, for no obvious reason, consists of dozens of bookshelves and hundreds of second-hand books. As we were setting up for our performance that night in November, I was stringing a microphone cable behind my drums when I chanced to take a look at the shelf above my head.
There sat a 1947 Houghton Mifflin edition of Raintree County.
Long story short - I "liberated" it.
Anyway, I was somewhat surprised to see that the book was relatively thick. I knew that the book was set in a town in the mythical Raintree County, Ohio, on July 4th, 1892 - although flashbacks cover many years and characters, many hilarious episodes and much tragedy, from visits to New Orleans cathouses to encounters with chilling madness, mythical foot races, delicious sensual interludes and battles in the Civil War. What I did not know and was not prepared for was a book that was -- is - as much a landmark of American literature as was TRISTRAM SHANDY, to which it bears a distinct family resemblace.
That statement alone must have raised a few eyebrows among the more widely read DEEP OUTSIDE readers. TRISTRAM SHANDY, by Lawrence Sterne, is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of literature in the English language, a tour-de-farce combining clever graphic elements with wild and wooly characterizations. While RAINTREE COUNTY is generally more sedate and penetrating that TS, it shares a graphic cleverness that comes alive more than once, and builds to a jaw-dropping non-verbal climax. The book in fact ends with a squiggle! But it is no ordinary squiggle - and to say more would be to ruin a discovery that truly and satisfactorily tops off one of the most remarkable novels I have ever read.
This is, you see, a writer's book as well as a reader's book. I've never seen any other author use the stylistic device that Lockridge pulls off to get from chapter to chapter. The book is poetic and poignant, comic and tragfic, with its roots deep in an America of the mind. It it utterly unique.
It explores the life of one John Sawnessy of Waycross, a small town in Raintree County, on the aforementioned 4th of July. On this day, a number of John's friends and acquaintences from over the years - including his old professor, a Heinleinesque "wise man" character named Jerusalem Webster Stiles -- have returned to Waycross to celebrate the holiday. John, 50, a schoolteacher who has not lived up to his early promise as a writer, has been awakened that morning by a strange dream. As his friends return to town he reflects on the dream and its meaning. There are many asides concerning other members of John's family. Several people have come to Waycross in search of a legendary copy of a local history, supposedly illustrated with scandalous drawings revrealing the town's hypocritical core.
But there is more here, far more. The breadth of human experience is here, as well as explications of love and regret so poignant that they can almost be tasted.
It was such a rich experience that even as I was reading it I knew that I had come upon a work of art that would accompany me the rest of my way through my life's journey. There are a few other novels that have affected me deeply - CATCH-22 is one, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES is another. To the narrow shelf populated by life-changing books, I have added a new volume.
No, it isn't perfect. Lockridge's prose borders awfully close to purple at times, and even crosses the boundary. But the novel is SO good, SO compelling, and his characters are SO alive, that it is easy to forgive him an excess or two.
The true story of Lockridge's suicide, as discovered by his son, Larry (who was four when his father died), can be read at the RAINTREE COUNTY web site. It a sad tale of a frustrated man slowly going mad and not knowing how to ask for help. But no matter what you think about Lockridge, in my opinion you would do well for yourself to dig up a copy of RAINTREE COUNTY (perhaps in the 1994 Penguin edition - I can promise you that the Court Jester's copy won't be available anytime soon) and settle in for what might be one of the premiere reading experiences of your life.
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