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Raintree County: by Ross Lockridge Jr.

Raintree County


I knew not the existence of Raintree County until reading a weekly article by Steven Grutzmacher in the Peninsula Pulse last summer. The gist of the article was a response to a customer asking Steve what he thought the best book he ever read was. His reply to that question was Raintree County, and given Steve’s lifelong devotion to reading and writing and books, I did not take his reply lightly. I immediately whipped out my iphone, opened my amazon app and purchased a digital copy for no other reason than it was the past of least resistance; and I felt the intense need to read immediately.

The book is over 1000 pages in length, which I did not initially appreciate due to its being a digital copy, and only surmised its length after noticing that I was at 1% (in the lower corner of my Kindle) for longer than usual. I also made the mistake of a forgetful thumb on the right side of the screen due to a momentary lapse of attention and inadvertently jumped forward about a hundred pages, not realizing my error for 40-50 page, a day or so later, after encountering some inconsistencies and correlating them to my 15% completion percentage, which I knew to be impossible.

I started over, and enjoyed rereading the first section as much as I did a couple of days earlier. I read the book in 20 minute to 1-2 hour blocks, a day or several apart (due to work constraints), completing about 45% before leaving on a long weekend trip to the Bahamas where I finished it on a balcony, five stories up, overlooking the windward side of Paradise Island, which I found especially poignant given the significance of Paradise Lake in Raintree County.

As one with aspersions for writing significantly, someday, perhaps in another life or alternate universe even, I found Raintree County discouraging due to the reality that I could never write at a level approaching the bare foothills of the mountains that are Ross Lockridge Jr.’s genius. The book spans fifty years in the life of Johnny Shawnessy, narrated in a series of sequential flashbacks within the course of one day, the 4th of July, 1892. It straddles the Civil War, in which Johnny eventually participates in after Gettysburg. It is written in parts from the viewpoint of Johnny as a small boy, his young daughter, his second wife; and there are several “epic fragments” of assorted writers of rustic dialects reminiscent of Mark Twain.

Raintree County is, at the root, a love story, and a philosophy of the meaning of life. It is a grand opus which blew me away with its scope and ambition. Every time I read it, and I do mean in every chapter, if not on every page, I found myself stopping and rereading sentences, pages, paragraphs not because I didn’t understand them but because I found myself enchanted with what Lockridge was saying and how he was saying it. It thought it a mixture of poetry and prose, like a more modern Shakespeare. There are obvious literary references, and you can tell these having had an influence on Lockridge, and as an English major myself, I appreciated these and this.

Paradise IslandThis is the view in front of me as I read of Johnny marching in Washington after the war, and hours later, after the sudden darkness from the sun dropping below the rim of the ocean, I read of Johnny pulling into the train station in Freehaven and finishing his long way home past the graveyard, approaching the half-buried boulder at the edge of the home place. Sue and Jessie were behind me, in the room and I was glad for the solitude of the balcony, and the darkness as the sharp black edges of the words melted into the screen/page.

I had to be physically extracted from the book for dinner downstairs in some restaurant that required me to wear slacks for some ridiculous reason, especially when half the women there barely had there nether regions covered, and I think my legs were likely more attractive (hair and all) than at least a few of them others there. I was finally able to finish the book before retiring that night.

Ross Lockridge Jr. committed suicide a year or so after writing his book of seven years effort in the writing. He had four children I believe. His son, Larry, wrote a book Shades of Raintree County, that addresses his father’s life and I’ll probably read that one of these days.

It is said that he suffered from depression and I can’t help wonder if the sheer magnificence and completeness of Raintree County was such that Ross couldn’t ever imagine writing something more complete, ever. I don’t know. It was difficult for me to reconcile that with Johnny Shawnessy, who was Lockridge, at least in my mind.

As much as I wanted to finish it, I was saddened by it’s end, and especially after diving immediately into my next vacation read, which was so disappointingly average; but, I knew that it would be so for how could it not. Raintree County is almost like a religion. It is a belief system, and a story of love and passion, written with an eroticism that transcends today’s sweaty purple prose.


Cutting For Stone

by Abraham Verghese

We all have dreams, call them fantasies, of what we would wish to be or wish to do. Some would like to swim like Michael Phelps, or take an NFL team down the field like Aaron Rodgers, or enchant millions of people with a voice like Pavarotti, or hypnotize audiences, in front of celluloid screens, like Meryl Streep. I, would like to write like Abraham Verghese, not in the syntactical sense of course, but in the emotive sense; to take the reader on a journey: to have the reader take a giant breath and go under, swimming down into another world filled with foreign sights and smells assaulting the senses that overwhelm in their beauty and complexity of story, pulling you deeper, luring you into dark recesses that lead to grottos of translucent bluish-white light glittering off of sandy bottoms, until your diaphragm begins contracting and you are forced to surface, reluctantly, your head breaking the surface with a spray of water and your only thought being to breath and dive down again. Unfortunately, there is not the comfort of a physical impossibility separating me from Dr. Verhese; and I cannot help but feel like Salieri in Amadeus, who has the intellect to appreciate the genius of Mozart and feels frustration in the recognition of his own mediocrity; and I am reminded of the scene where he’s being wheeled down a hall, demented and crazy, blessing those he is passing, saying, “I absolve you, all you champions of mediocrity.”

Much of my fascination with the novel is the medical part of it, which is accented by the large role played by my chosen specialty of Surgery. I enjoyed the common aphorisms, many of the familiar, but some not, such as the 13th commandment, “thou shalt not operate on the day of a patient’s death.” And another aphorism of Thomas Stone, which is so true: “when the abdomen is open, you control the abdomen, but, when you close the abdomen, it controls you.”

I enjoyed the undercurrent of faith throughout the book, and the interconnectedness of the story that if I wrote about would diminish the impact for the reader not yet exposed to this wonderful work. God, missionary medicine, forbidden love, betrayal, emperors, war, disease, doctors, nurses, nuns, redemption, miracles; what a piece of work.

I read this book when it first came out, and when George, the member of my book club who suggested it, sent out the group email to fellow members, I didn’t say a word because it gave me a reason to read it a second time.


Mountains Beyond Mountains (Book Review)

Written by Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy Kidder.

This biography of Dr. Paul Farmer was picked as a book club selection; and like many of the picks, was a book I would not have otherwise read. The story of Dr. Farmer, and his charitable organization, Partners In Health (PIH) was compelling, and inspiratinal in the sense of “against all odds,” and it was not a chore to read, as some book selections are (notably, my last pick). In fact, I enjoyed reading it very much, other than the rankling irritation of Dr. Farmer’s political ideology, which ran as a strong undercurrent throughout.

Although possibly not a genius, as the book suggests, I think Dr. Farmer not far off, and his drive, his compassion, his conviction, and his singular accomplishments around the world speak for themselves. As I read the book, the image of Dr. Farmer forming in my mind was that of a perhaps mildly arrogant, incelebate, white male Mother Theresa who swore a lot, and preferred silk to horse hair; but as I progressed through the book, the image softened, and my admiration grew.

I found it interesting how he became enchanted with all things Haiti as a boy and young man in his exposure to migrant workers. He identified the cause for his existence early on in life, and pursued that cause with a passion and focus not commonly seen, or at least with results not commonly seen. His root passion I think he is saying is to be of service to the poor. I say, “I think” because I’m not sure if that is superseded by what he refers to as “inequality”, primarily medical inequality/medical justice, but also social inequality/social justice, which perhaps he views as different sides of the same coin.

What I didn’t appreciate about Dr. Farmer’s view of “redistributive justice,” medical or otherwise, was the seemingly blind eye he cast upon the real and significant role that capitalism played in the attainment of his dramatic results. The book implies that the primary role for the “rich” is as a source for equitable redistribution, which of course would only be possible if there were rich people to redistribute from.

How rich would have Tom White become if his earned income was redistributed in ratios of 50-90%,because, if 50% is fair, then wouldn’t 70% be more fair, etc. Bill Gates, and George Soros are mentioned as other major supporters of PIH, both of whom have made their fortunes in a capitalistic system; Mr. Soros, as a hedge fund manager, and Mr. Gates in technology. Had they not made their fortunes from the fruits of captitalism, where would PIH be then?

Then too, along those same lines, is Dr. Farmer’s admiration of the Cuban health care system, similar in respects to Michael Moore’s  I imagine. I can understand his point in regard to the public health care system; however, Cuba is in a small country, and a direct comparison cannot be made to our own country without accounting for the variables. The reality is that all that is good in medicine; antibiotics, pacemakers, cancer drugs, drugs for the treatment of hypertension, fertility, heart disease, impotence, all arise from the capitalistic system in which there is the driver of profit and wealth for those who exert themselves in these various pursuits.

Why did Tom White exert himself, or George Soros, or Bill Gates…To help PIH? I don’t think so. At least, not initially. But, by exerting themselves, and accumulating wealth, they eventually were able to make the conscious choice to do so.

Following the Hiatian earthquake, I wonder how much relief came from Cuba, Russia, China, and the European social democracies? I wonder how much relief came from the USA? I say I wonder, because I’m too lazy to look it up, but I’m pretty sure I know what the answer is.

Charity and benevolence does not eminate from communist countries or dictatorships; it emminates from capitalistic and free societies.

So to Dr. Farmer’s vision of redistributive justice, I say phooey. Instead, I choose to applaud the benevolence of capitalism that makes all else possible.

And to Dr. Farmer, who actually walks the walk, and is a true believer in his vision, even if faulty, I say, “Bravo.” And, “Carry on, Doctor.”

Space Troopers

I finished “Space Troopers” by Robert Heinlein today. I’m sure I’ve read it before, as an adolescent as SF was one of my favorite genres, but if not, I’m glad I read it now. I liked the underlying philosophy of duty, honor, country, and the heroism of the uber-super-trooper. It’s written in first person through the eyes of a futuristic military soldier going through basic training and initial combat experience. It’s especially fun because this book was written in 1959, and RH had done graduate work in physics, so the technical aspects didn’t require much of a suspension of disbelief. It was fast-reading, with a lot of action, yet there was this buried philosophical monologue that frequently cropped up.

I’ve been on a reading binge lately, with a focus on genre fiction since I’d like to write something myself. Before I attended a SEAK writing conference a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t bothered to pay much attention to the differential of literary fiction vs. genre fiction. I guess that my traditional idea of writing a first novel would have been in the genre of literary fiction, generally about a quasi-autobiographical, tortured primary character that progresses to a less-tortured state of personal and interpersonal/familial function (or dysfunction). However, I’ve decided that the structure and formula of genre fiction might be less stressful. Ironically, when I was laid up earlier in the summer I started writing genre fiction, but then switched to literary, not really appreciating the difference. Uh-oh, Sue just called–she’s on her way home, I’d better get busy look’in busy, like probably making a salad.

St. Francis/GK Chesterton

I read St. Francis 2-3 weeks ago, and would have been better served had I thought to write about it then. Although it’s largely seeped away, through my porous neural network of a memory there does remain some residual. Chesterton’s portrayal of the child-like impetuous monk who began his quest for martyrdom by renouncing his family, stripping down to a hair shirt, and walking out into the wintry world did cause me to think how such actions would be perceived in today’s more modern era.

A few nights ago as I lay in bed, trying to sleep. I briefly fantasized about what it would be like to divest myself of everything and walk out into the world as did St. Francis, because I was intrigued by the argument that that is the only way to be truly free–to have nothing of worth that  another might want–doing as St. Francis did; when begging for food, only accepting the lowest of offerings; when presented scraps for clothes, taking the scrappiest of scraps for yourself; if asked for anything you might happen to have, giving it up gladly, and so on.

My fantasy was not long-lived because what St. Francis did as a young man, without any dependents (that I know of) was not necessarily impractical for him, or any vocational person perhaps; however, for myself, with a job, family, obligations, it is decidedly impractical for me. So I will never be as free as St. Francis, but I will be much more comfortable.

I think that the idea of St. Francis, as a mirror of Christ, is beautiful, and lives on in his order. We need the saints, torches of bright fire lighting the darkness allowing us to see the way.

Although we can all approach the moral ideal of “to do good things” and lead a Christian life, we can’t all be saints. Someone has to pay the bills. What would the world be like if we all took a vow of poverty, or turned the other cheek. The fact is that there would always be someone who would not take that vow, or turn their cheek, and that would make our material, mortal world a very miserable place indeed.

So, we can admire the saints, look up to them, be inspired by their purity, but let us not delude ourselves into trusting others to behave as goodly as they. Like Reagen said, “trust, but verify,” and “peace, through strength.”

Last Night in Twisted River: J. Irving

I finished Irving’s latest novel this morning. I’ve read all of his books. I liked some more than others. I wonder what is biographical and what isn’t; for instance, there is always a significant role played be a bear. “Twisted River” isn’t a very linear book, but it was still well written and easy to follow and flip back and forth. Often times within a page you would be thirty or more years apart. Towards the end (I mean really at the end) I got a valuable clue about how he must write (I imagine it to be true), and that is by starting at the end. He says something about how can you write if you don’t know where you’re going.

All of his books are tragic, most with a somewhat happy ending, if perhaps bittersweet (emphasis on bitter), and this is no different. It was a lovely ending, but you find yourself wishing that it didn’t have to take so long. Three fourths or so of the way through the book, one of the characters dies and it was that kind of a part of a book where you must stop so that the emotional impact can attenuate to the point where it is safe to read on. I found the ending to be of a similar impact, only in reverse.

My main problem with the book is the obvious fact that J. Irving suffers mightily from Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS). There are snippets of BDS throughout the book that are easy enough to overlook; but, the last fifty pages are packed with BDS that have no part in the story other than a J. Irving rant in which he insults everyone who doesn’t share his liberal left wing-nut viewpoint–he’s the only smart one who “gets it;” everyone else is a stupid, fucking idiot (I think this is fairly verbatim, but I refuse to re-read it for clarification).

Bottom line is that I salute J. Irving, despite his extremist views, because he has a knack for touching the reader in that special place that mass market pulp fiction writers rarely do. This is what I admire about him, and a few other authors that readily come to mind, like Wally Lamb and the guy who wrote “Cutting for Stone,” Abraham Verghese. I only wish I could do it.