Patrick's Reviews > Raintree County

Raintree County by Ross Lockridge Jr.
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Jul 31, 2009

it was amazing
Read in November, 2009

Raise your hand if you have heard of Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr.? I hadn't until Jared Carter handed me a copy of the book a few months ago. I very much wish I had found this book earlier, though, perhaps, I may not have enjoyed it as much (I did not really appreciate Moby-Dick until well after college). Speaking of Moby-Dick, I have always considered that novel THE American novel. Raintree County does not displace Melville's masterpiece, but it definitely comes in with the silver medal as far as I am concerned. This is an astonishing book. A family tale. A war story. An epic. A story that teases out the myths of youth that we carry forward to adulthood. A story about creation and loss and love. A local story. A universal tale.

The novel is so lusciously sprawling that a summary is futile. The story ostensibly takes place during the course of July 4, 1892. But the day is splintered by memories that reach back to the 1840s and reach forward to 1892. John Wickliff Shawnessy is the hero of the novel, but he is flanked by a mesmerizing cast of characters: Garwood Jones, Professor Jersusalem Stiles, Nell Gaither, and Susanna Drake among others. Each character is fully formed, but they are archetypal at the same time.

* Jones is the great friend and archrival. A politician so successful that you feel the slipperiness of him because he knows how to read the public and ride on the wave carrying the largest bloc of voters. He becomes a Union Army colonel at the tail end of the war--late enough to avoid real fighting but soon enough to boast of his soldiering credentials.
* Stiles's middle name is Webster, and if you think of Webster's dictionary, you've thought correctly. A man who debates fluently with Shawnessy about any number of things, metaphysical to sexual.
* Nell is the true love of Shawnessy, a woman for whom he has framed an entire myth around, but also a woman always just out of reach or time to truly be happy with. Something or some one is always a barrier to their final happiness.
* Susanna is a troubled Southern girl whose mental anguish, stemming from a Faulkner gothic family, whose tormented mind is metaphorically the result of the conflict of the slavery in pre-Civil War America. The hypocrisy of freedom, the commercial abuse (i.e., an honest wage for honest labor), and moral degradation of the enslavers....all come into a debilitating mental conflict. To the northern Shawnessy, she is a beautiful mystery. Even a scar whose importance only becomes apparent later is mysterious and erotic to the young Shawnessy.

I am leaving out a host of minor characters of the kind that fill small towns throughout America. However, another major character in the novel is America itself. Lockridge often riffs off of Whitman in long prose-poem passages:

America was a city by a river, a city of gloomily eclectic buildings, confused unhappy domes and spires of buildings that were trying to be the most beautiful buildings that ever were but couldn't be because they hadn't any souls. America was faces in the Avenue of the Republic, eager, excited faces with mobile eyes. America was the place where all the world sent its third-rate art and gaudiest claptrap and where it was all piled up together and then became something hushed, exciting, wonderful because it was in America.

Another non-human character is a central myth built into the mind of Shawnessy, of the fabled raintree and the creature of the lake. These myths and America weave in and out of the novel, haunting the edges, inspiring the noblest of human passions, and acting as the unmovable background on which all the characters act.

As the day moves along and the 1892 characters become visible in the past, the story of where they are and what they've become emerges as a record of memory, though memory is not revealed as an American specialty. The Civil War necessarily looms large in the consciousness of the memory. Shawnessy joins the war effort a couple of years after the conflict begins, but he enters the war to participate in Sherman's march to the sea. Lockridge captures adequately, I think, the pervasiveness of slavery and the North/South tensions and also all the uncertainty of whether war was inevitable.

One of the minor characters, Flash Perkins, the fastest man in Raintree County until defeated by Shawnessy in a drunken race is with Shawnessy's unit. In a looting tangent, they face a small group of Confederates. Perkins wounded, keeps fighting until

Here, surely, was the strongest life that ever lived, and it was dying, it was beating itself out in blood and fury.

There was nothing good about the way Flash Perkins died in a forest near Columbia, South Carolina. He died choking with his throat full of blood, still trying to beat some unseen competitor who was too much for him.

What I find so admirable in this passage is that it captures both the dignity of the man and the horror of war. Those emotions are enmeshed within the structure of the sentences themselves.

I could carry on randomly like this for some time because there is so much that is delightful in this novel. I am still absorbing the weight and breadth of the novel, but I am certain it is a triumph. Lockridge, sadly, killed himself shortly after this novel was published in 1948, but he left behind a masterpiece of fiction and I hope that others will discover its richness.


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09/06/2009 page 10
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message 1: by Corey (new)

Corey I have not read this but was aware of it I guess because of the Montgomery Clift movie made from it. I will look for a copy now because of your review.


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