In The Shade of Father's Tree

By Darshan Singh Maini

Chandigarh, India--Jan. 1, 1995


"Raintree County"
by Ross Lockridge Jr.
Viking/Penguin, $18.95, 1050p
Paper ISBN: 014023666X

"Shade of the Raintree"
by Larry Lockridge
Viking/Penguin, $27.95h/$14.95p, 500p
Hardcover ISBN 0-670-85440-9
Paperback ISBN: 0140158715

      Of all the books a reviewer has to contend with, there is perhaps no volume more daunting in some respects than the biography of a literary star that for some obscure and tantalizing reasons burnt himself out at the peak of his powers, achieving a fiery nirvana of sorts. And those drawn to that flame remain there to rake up the ashes for the clues to such a tragic fate. Or, to change the metaphor, the imagination of scrutiny and resurrection takes upon itself to explore the catacombs of documents, letters, diaries, abandoned manuscripts and stray papers to come to terms with such a singular phenomenon. A number of different directions that the engaged muses may take begin to offer tentative constructions -- from the familial, cultural and sociological to the Freudian, Jungian and mythic, and the imagination in labour cannot but be inveigled into some fanciful options.

      It is in the light of such thoughts that the reader response acquires a certain kind of readiness to close with the fabulous volume called "Shade of the Raintree" written by Larry Lockridge in anguish, nostalgia and celebration. At any time and in any context, it cannot but be a harrowing experience for a writer caught thus in the web of memories, rumours and surmises. But when the subject of the biography happens to be a genius (to some, a genius manqué) imperious and arrant in action, and exulting to the top of his bent in the service of a great dream, even a reviewer cannot but be drawn into a Byzantium of thought and word, let alone the author, such being, then, the raison d'etre of this biography.

      It is appropriate to recall Larry Lockridge's preamble in this regard. "My book," he writes, "is a quest, four decades later, to overcome confusion and lay bare the desolate act.......I'll tell this story of my father's life, from dawn to darkness, for the intensities of will and creative intellect we might find there." Somewhere, I think, H.G. Wells said this of the difficult genre of biography: "A man's biography should be written by a conscientious enemy." Well, the author of "Raintree County", I guess, must have created quite a few foes en route, such being the fate of literary celebrities, but none perhaps survived, or thought of doing it on any large scale.

      It was left then to a conscientious son and scholar, and an eminent critic and teacher at New York University to do the job through the energies of the empathetic imagination. The result is a deeply pondered book, rich in all kinds of aesthetic epiphanies and observations. The precarious balance between love and commitment, and between the torment and the truth has been beautifully maintained. It is a fascinating dialectic which a troubled son has hoisted to achieve the aesthetic of authenticity about which Lionel Trilling talked so eloquently in his Harvard lectures, "Sincerity and Authenticity", around the time the author graduated from that great university. It is, indeed, such an exercise which preserves the aroma of scholarly thought.

      Quite clearly, the biography, conceived in pain and perplexity, and nurtured in the arbours of his spirit was ready for consummation only when Larry Lockridge had acquired the necessary amount of nervous energy and intellectual wherewithal to face such an "ordeal of consciousness". Thus we find here a great life, a great novel and a great tragedy memorialized in a classic vein. What has been maturing silently in the cellars of the mind was brought to a vintage condition by a brooding intelligence. Undoubtedly, the costs for the author-son were heavy, an "expense of spirit", though not in a "waste" of words. The Shakespearian phrase, as we shall see, holds good in more than one sense. The Shakespearian motif in "Raintree County" and Shakespearian dimensions here and there do lend that novel a metaphoric structure much in the manner of the bard's late romances.

      This pitiless probe, then, into his father's vanities, pretenses and posturing on the one hand, and into the processes of his mind and imagination which went into the making of "Raintree County" over a period of seven years or so on the other, constitute the great appeal of this biography. It is a harrowing tale of a great talent, and an insightful evocation of a great novel in all its linguistic richness, episodic fecundity, poetic fantasies, cultural and historical context, etc.

      The son also seems to have experienced something of the agony and ecstasy that the father once felt in such great measure. It is a filial bonding at the level of literary emotion also. One may even go on to aver that like the Jameses, the Lockridges -- a historian grandfather, a novelist father and a critic son -- also constitute "a family of minds". No wonder, one is tempted to call it oedipal biography, for even otherwise there is a distinctive echo of "the family romance" in it.

      Since this biography is an intersection story of a writer and a book, no one who has not read this "mega novel" is likely to get completely to the nuclear heart of the problem, or to its pitch and promise. It is, therefore, necessary that we have a measure of the complicated strains that go to make the fabulous tapestry of this American odyssey. It is such a crowded and over-wrought work as to become almost a drag at times, but even its extravagances and its prodigalities, in the end, fall into a pattern. What is more, they are also laced with an operative irony, thus mitigating the effects of excess or inflation.

      The "story" of the story as told by Larry Lockridge in a series of dispersed chapters is artfully managed. The jolly romp of the hero, John Shawnessy, (modelled on the writer's maternal grandfather) through the Indiana countryside, and through American history, romance, mythology, culture and a dozen other territories of the imagination is one fascination sprawl from end to end. Scores of characters flit through its pages, characters that a Hogarth or a Bruegel might have assembled on canvas, characters that suggest both Whitmanian energies and Dickensian drolleries, and characters that have a fey poetic charm. It is indeed, a whole little microcosm of God's creatures settled in the promised land. The sheer sparkle and dazzle of things holds and compels.

      Again, Larry Lockridge has taken care to isolate for comment and evocation some of the glorious sun-lit scenes of love, tenderness and intimacy. Also, some scenes of great tragedy and the triumph of the spirit. The novelist, it appears, was, after a few false starts, able to chip away effortlessly at the rock reality of life and bring out the figures lurking in the marble.

      But, I trust, eventually the great appeal of the book lies in its visionary prose, in its architectonics, and in its narratology. It is not surprising to see the language acquire wings and take off as though possessed, wanting to reach out to the extremities of human thought and experience. There are, en route, explosions, epiphanies and intimations of all manner.

      In a bid to take the human reality by the scruff of the neck, as it were, Lockridge's language begins, at times to pant for breath in that assault; it seems to be straining beyond the limit of endurance. Obviously, the writer believed in the holiness of the word, not in any theological sense, but in the sense of its dynamics. The energies of language are the energies of life. He believed passionately in its human riches.

      As Larry Lockridge puts it, "Instead of an arbitrary sign, a word is potentially the incarnation of thought, and capable of taking us to the interior of its represented world. The word is a living thing. This is a poet's faith, and it was Ross Lockridge's......" In this aspect, he was close to such writers as Melville, Whitman, Joyce, Wolfe and Faulkner, for whom also the human language had explosive and expansive possibilities quite beyond the putative aspect.

      Similarly, Ross Lockridge in his magnum opus, as his son tells us, wanted to write "The Great American Novel" which the novelist believed was waiting for "The Master". In his letters and other comments, he tried to repudiate his debt to Melville, Joyce and Wolfe, above all but there is no doubt all these earlier novelists were fuming in his blood and bones, and it was perhaps "the anxiety of influence" which he had sought to dissipate, to use Harold Bloom's idea in an extended context. For the poetic novel (which is what that genre tends towards continually, whatever its vestures) seems to obey the same rules as poetry per se. Thus the elaborate schema of "Raintree County" which subsumes the use of myth, symbol, layering, overlay, shifts and echoes, among other devices, was, in fact, painfully evolved though it does begin to creak here and there under its own monstrous weight.

      Again, different characters, by turns, become "the novel's center of consciousness", and it is through a "polyphony of styles and voices" that Ross Lockridge achieves what Northrop Frye styled as "encyclopaedic form". That is perhaps in some ways the opposite of the Jamesian novel of form annealed under dramatic pressure, and assuming diamond-like cut and finish. A chiselled artefact, in short. The "encyclopaedic" novel, or, if you like, the Whitmanian, on the other hand, is almost always bursting at the seams, and chafing under the pressure of constraints. Each, of course, has its own true rationale, and its aesthetic dialectic.

      There is, in addition, as Larry Lockridge is quick to realise, a "carnivalesque" side to "Raintree County". And if Bakhtin's concept of this form and the idea of "grotesque realism", is extended, we begin to understand the mixed strains that weave the thought and the events into a loose pattern. It may be added, in passing, that "the carnivalesque" genre is essentially parodic, subversive and anti-canonic. No wonder, some of Ross Lockridge's daring forays into the constitutive hypocrisies of the establishment in regard to sex and religion in particular made some of the contemporary readers view "Raintree County" as "a dirty book". There are, besides, some stinging broadsides against the brigand-type of capitalism which reduced the human beings to commodity and thing. And "the perfessor" (sic) seems to be the voice of Ross's other self in the book, questioning all sorts of orthodoxies in his inimitable ironic idiom.

      This is but one side of the passage of "Raintree County"-- through the rapids of theme and thought, of form and technique. There is still that other side -- the story of its stormy passage to publication, the awe and anxiety it evoked at the publisher's end, the endless quarrels over the jettisoning of some parts, the MGM award of $150000 (which in today's terms comes to $1,050,000) the Hollywood film with Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and several such hassles and fracas which were enough to break anyone's nerves. All these troublesome details are given by the son in an unsparing manner. His father's pettinesses and even "meannesses" are not overlooked, or sought to be explained away. There is a transparent honesty in the proceedings.

      And then came the catastrophic end with the rapidity and unexpectedness of a tornado. The novelist suffering from illusions, and delusions, and edging towards the brink, took his own life, locking himself in his car and inhaling the poisonous fumes of the emission. It was a disaster at a time when a whole new career of literary fame and fortune lay before him! And as Larry Lockridge says: "Thus we grew up with a novel instead of a father". In other words, the bereaved and desolated family had from that time onwards to live under the shade of that surrogate father "Raintree County". Clearly, the book had assumed "spiritual" dimensions for those close to him, and they have had to live with it, each in his or her own way, and on own terms.

      In the end, I may add a few words on Larry Lockridge's own prose and style. He eschews his father's lushnesses and magnanimities of prose, and is content to hone into shape a style that is muscular, efficient and brisk though imbued with a sense of poetry and nervous beauty. Criticism and biography would naturally demand a different order of expression. It is not plenitude but economy which governs their argument. But, surely, the son manages to catch "the murmur of the spirit" to use the Indian editor, R. Raghunatha Aiyer's eloquent words in relation to great prose.

Originally Published in The Tribune,  No Date Given


© 1995 Darshan Singh Maini


Raintree County

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