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.
This 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.