Book Review

By Richard Dyer

Boston Globe,  Aug. 2, 1994

"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

      Ross Lockridge Jr. set out to write the Great American Novel. No one would attempt such a thing anymore, but in "Raintree County" Lockridge came closer to the goal that most aspirants have. In 1948, the year of "The Naked and the Dead"  and  "Other Voices, Other Rooms," "Raintree County"  became a best seller and a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club; it won a $150,000 award from MGM, which a few years later filmed the novel with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint in the principal roles.

      Lockridge never saw the film; in 1948, in the first flush of an extraordinary success, the 33-year-old novelist, happily married and the father of four children, walked to the garage, attached a vacuum-cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of his Kaiser and committed suicide, sitting bolt upright in the back seat.

      Lockridge's son Larry, who was only 5 in 1948, has now written an inquiry into the life and death of his father, "Shade of the Raintree,"  and Penguin has reissued "Raintree County"  in paperback.

      Ten years after its publication, I played sick for two days so I could stay home from school to finish reading "Raintree County."  Today the faults and pretensions of the book are more apparent than they were then - most of them are literary faults, the result of overreaching ambition; on the other hand, the powerful currents and depth of this great swollen river of a book remain irresistible. "Raintree County"  doesn't have to be the great American novel to be an American classic and a classic expression of the American dream; a time and place in our history are made permanent in this book - this is the Indiana world of Lockridge's grandparents.

      It is clear that "Shade of the Raintree"  is also destined to become an American classic on its own. It is a biography of a compelling figure written with compelling urgency and depth of feeling by a son seeking the father he never got the chance to know. In seeking to understand his father, Lockridge sometimes comes down very hard on his grandparents, but he does have a real sense of how families work, and he has genuine compassion for how people try to do their best in impossible situations. Once again a Lockridge has permanently fixed through art and imagination a time and place - the Indiana world of his own parents and grandparents.

      Ross Lockridge Jr. was the son of a populist historian; his mother was a psychologist who knew how to push the buttons she had installed in her son. He graduated from Indiana University with the highest gradepoint average ever established there, studied in Paris, went to Cambridge to do graduate work at Harvard, taught at Simmons College, summered on Cape Ann and married his undergraduate sweetheart, Vernice Baker.

      Like a runner training for a marathon, Lockridge prepared himself thoroughly for the mighty task of writing a great book. He had exhaustively educated himself, reading comprehensively through American and world fiction, philosophy and poetry. Before "Raintree County,"  which ran to more than 2,000 pages, neatly typed by Vernice, Lockridge had written and abandoned an epic poem and another novel, both of comparable bulk; he bought 20,000 sheets of typing paper at a time.

      Writing "Raintree County"  with small children in the house was the staggering labor of seven years; it left Lockridge exhausted and in a state of clinical depression, which manifested itself first in a defensive correspondence with his publishers that is extraordinary even in the context of other such emotionally charged correspondence. Later the depression took the form of despair over his work and a complete inability to contemplate writing something else - in this he resembled Virginia Woolf, who also battled clinical depression after she finished each of her novels.

      Like his cousin, Mary Jane Ward, author of "The Snake Pit,"  Lockridge was hospitalized for mental illness and given electroshock treatment; later it seemed easier to follow his mother's advice and go to a Christian Science practitioner. Finally he felt he had no other choice; he listened to a last basketball game on the radio, and headed for the garage.

      There is a curious aspect to many of the photographs of Lockridge reproduced in "Shade of the Raintree."  He was a handsome, charismatic man; women compared him to Tyrone Power. Everyone else in the photos has a period look; Lockridge looks like a modern actor in period costume, our contemporary. That is how immediately he faces us in his son's generous-spirited biography.

      Clinical depression was as little understood in the 1940s as it is now; Lockridge's psychological dilemma seems very contemporary, although, alas, in the scope of Lockridge's ambition and his commitment to leaving an imperishable gift to humanity through his work there is very little of our time. The best thing about "Shade of the Raintree"  is that it sees nothing in idealism to ridicule; Larry Lockridge can make us feel it the way his father did.

Originally Published in The Boston Globe,   Aug. 2, 1994,


© 1994 Richard Dyer


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