Raintree County is the anatomy of a fall from Paradise-with all the Edenic metaphors placed in a fictional county in Indiana-and the process by which it is regained. The structure and scope of the book are extraordinary, a system of telling and suspension that turns one day into a hundred years, all hinged upon the American Civil War (and the allegorical death of the principal character). Like another great contemporary American novel, All The King's Men, Raintree County was built upon the wreckage of a failed epic prose poem. Also, like Robert Penn Warren's glittering classic, Ross Lockridge's best-selling masterpiece deals with a gifted primary character caught up in the vortex of human history (though Penn Warren was more interested in the problem of power than he was in the cataloging of the life of Huey Long).
Raintree County should be a standard of 20th Century American literature. It is perhaps the greatest novel ever written. I'm mystified as to why it doesn't make Random House's Top 100 Novels List. I think in all honesty that Raintree County is too straightforward, too compassionate, too wise, too loving, too optimistic, too gently humorous, and too accessible to please the moldy and myopic listmakers. Really "great" books, as everyone knows, are dry game puzzles, smug literary fogs, brutal crayon travelogues, or ancient misanthropic sphinxes that museum directors and tenured professors of the academies alike can dust off occasionally without fear of ever having to update their pamphlets.
The texture style and meter of this work is astoundingly lyrical yet clear. To wit: "The world is still full of divinity and strangeness, Mr. Shawnessy said. The scientist stops, where all men do, at the doors of birth and death. He knows no more than you and I why a seed remembers the oak of twenty million years ago, why dust acquires the form of a woman, why we behold the earth in space and time. He hasn't yet solved the secret of a single name upon the earth. We may pluck the nymph from the river, but we won't pluck the river from ourselves: this coiled divinity is still all murmurous and strange. There are sacred places everywhere. The world is still man's druid grove, where he wanders hunting for the Tree of Life."
As long as I have a mind, I won't forget this profound and wonderful book or the characters who inhabit it: Perfessor Stiles with his pince-nez and Malacca cane, the cigar-chewing bighearted phony senator from Indiana, Garwood Jones, sweet Nell Gaither, the dark lost and deranged Susannah Drake. Carefully researched (it took seven years to write), it is also an excellent freshener on historical events of the nineteenth century, especially the Civil War. Contained within, for all you philosophiles, is the added bonus of cogent and detailed arguments for free will over predetermination, the triumph of spirit over matter, a solution to the riddle of the Many and the One, an explanation of the Word, and many more.
Born four years before J.D. Salinger, who still breathes at this writing, Ross Lockridge Jr. ended his life by carbon monoxide poisoning March 6th, 1948, two months after the publication of his one and only novel. He was thirty-three. He left behind a wife and four children. His second son, Larry, five years old at the time of his father's death, has written a book (Shade of the Raintree) attempting to explain what he calls "the greatest single mystery in American letters." He largely blames success in combination with a "biological (possibly genetic) predisposition to depression" along with "suicide-personality disorder (narcissistic)." It's easy to see why a John Kennedy O'Toole battering his manuscript (Confederacy of Dunces) against the unbreachable ramparts of Harcourt Brace and Get Lost, might do himself in (and then of course win a Pulitzer). But to receive a Harvard scholarship, publish an immediately successfully and lavishly acclaimed book which wins several major prizes including an MGM contract, and then to take your life as a proclaimed lover of life and a protector of four children, is a riddle beyond the ken of my meager imagination.