Don’t Raintree on my Parade

Mar 17, 2013 by

raintreecountyI rediscovered Audiobooks through Audible about a year ago when I decided to try to train myself for a 10K. The training isn’t going so well, but I am finding that listening to a book rather than a playlist is a great way to keep me out running longer. Sometimes my official run ends, but I keep going or walk a half mile longer just to see how it all comes out. Toward that end, I tend to pick long books or series that keep me on the training path. I may not be fast, I may not be incredibly consistent, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only runner who has trained to the entire six novel Palliser Series by Anthony Trollope. Now that I’m logging all these commuting miles each week between San Jose and Sonoma, I realized my Audiobook consumption was going to increase dramatically. I decided to tackle all the great books I’d never gotten around to reading.

Which brings me to Raintree County. Bet you’ve never heard of it either. Except maybe as an Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift movie that is kind of a lower budget Gone With the Wind. Seems Raintree County, when it was published was a sensation. It won all sorts of awards and accolades, it was immediately snapped up by Book of the Month Club and Hollywood. Then a chorus of voices, led by novelist Herman Wouk, declared it was the new incarnation of The Great American Novel. Now some people claim TGAN has already been definitively written — Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby are often cited. Some people claim it could NEVER be written — that we are too diverse a country and there are too many ways to “be American” to capture in one novel.

Now I don’t know how Herman defines The Great American Novel, but here’s my take.

As Mark Twain might say: "Someone's gonna haveta do a heap o'writin' to do better than Huck Finn.

As Mark Twain might say: “Someone’s gonna haveta do a heap o’writin’ to do better’n Huck Finn.”

The Great American Novel must:

1) Capture something absolutely essential to the American experience — so you can’t imagine the novel being transposed to Russia or Zimbabwe and especially not Europe or England.

2) Be written in a uniquely and recognizably American voice. A critic once said that, if one of Sir Walter Scott’s characters walked by wearing exactly what he wore in the novel, you’d recognize him. But if you encountered any of Dickens characters in a dark alley with only the voice to go by, you’d know them immediately. So the words of the characters in TGAN have to be so American that no person of any other nationality could possibly voice them. Yet those voices have to come from distinct individuals, not “types”.

3) Tackle the big issues of humanity through the unique prism of being an American.

4) Feel epic and BIG in scope, theme and subject.

So my TGAN list has three books that meet my exacting criteria.

1) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tackling the big issues of good and evil and the unique American issue of race as a result of slavery, Huck is also the first novel written in the American vernacular — instead of the high blown 19th Century “novelistic voice” found in Moby Dick or the Leatherstocking Tales. Add to that a journey of discovery, in its own way as epic as that of Odysseus, on that most mythic of American waterways, the Mississippi. As far as capturing the American experience, I don’t think anyone has to smoke a corn cob pipe or get on a raft to identify with Huck Finn and the big questions and struggles he faces.

2) The Great Gatsby. What’s more American than reinventing yourself? That’s the quintessence of America. We invented the concept. Don’t like who you are or what you were born as? Go away and come back different, better, enhanced. When narrator Nick Carraway says to Gatsby, “You can’t change the past”, Gatsby replies, “Of course you can.” I think very few of us aren’t, in some way, chasing that light at the end of the dock: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….”

3) To Kill a Mockingbird. The genius of Harper Lee is that she took all the great American themes such as race, identity, class, honor and morality and distilled it to a small Southern town. In addition to having authentic American voices, much of the story is told through the honest voice of a child. Is there anyone out there who didn’t want to be like Scout? Who didn’t want Atticus Finch for a dad? Or who didn’t find their mind changed or opened during the trial of Tom Robinson or when Boo Radley finally came out?

Elizabeth Taylor

In the movie version, Elizabeth Taylor plays the crazy-ass Southern Belle who is straight out of Tennessee Williams by way of the mad wife in Jane Eyre. I’m not giving anything away to say her story doesn’t end well and fire is involved.

So is Raintree County going to make my list? In a word: NO! Huck, Gatsby and Scout have nothing to worry about. In fact, with all its flashbacks, dream sequences and fractured timelines, this is probably one of the most infuriating books I’ve ever read. And I’m someone who read James Joyce’s Ulysses twice. And enjoyed it.

Ross Lockridge certainly tries to be a Joyce. The ostensible “action” takes place in a single day during which the main character and a few other characters reminisce, remember, muse and have stream of consciousness moments to flesh out the story that starts with the first westward expansion through the Civil War to the Gilded Age. All along the way, Lockridge weaves in mythological references and parallels into the narrative. I guess the difference between Lockridge and Joyce — I mean besides genius — is that Joyce’s book never stops being a ripping yarn with characters we identify with and know to be true to life. Joyce once described his masterpiece as “more than 1000 pages and not a serious word in it.” Lockridge, by contrast, is so self-consciously trying to write the definitive, epic Great American Novel, that he even has a scene where the characters sit on a porch and pontificate about how mythic America, the hero Johnny Shawnessy, and Raintree County are. Sorry, Bud, if you have to tell me… And not to be snarky, but I don’t think anyone could convince me that there is or ever has been anything mythic about Indiana.

Ol’ Ross sure tries, though, with lots of what a real Indianan would call “nekkid wimmin” swimming in the Shawmucky river and way too many references to the fertility of the oozing mud and swamp and what must be buckets of pollen falling from the trees. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that used the word “fecund” more frequently. Yeah, we get it. Indiana is the primordial ooze from which all American life springs. Or something like that. Yes, you better get used to that damn Shawmucky River. It’s Lockridge’s Mississippi and it even shows up as a scar on a woman’s breast. Not any woman, but a crazy-ass Southern Belle by Tennessee Williams out of the mad wife in Jane Eyre. I won’t be giving anything away to say her story doesn’t end well. And fire is involved.

About that titular Raintree. It's mythic, of course, maybe the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge. But mostly, it's just so fecund with all that pollen.

About that titular Raintree. It’s mythic, of course, maybe the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge. But mostly, it’s just so fecund with all that pollen.

I won’t even mention that all the characters speak in such stilted, stylized, pontificating PROSE (in capital letters) that they never seemed like real, breathing people. In other words, I’d recognize them if they wore the same clothes, but not in a dark alley. So annoyingly unreal was the dialogue that the only character I ended up liking was a big loud rube named “Flash” Perkins. There wasn’t anything particularly charming about him, and he gets offed in the Civil War. But at least he speaks as you’d imagine a real country boy from Indiana would.

Speaking of “Flash” Perkins, he points out another completely annoying thing about this novel. There are a few key moments (and yes, they are set up to be mythic) to which all the characters refer throughout this huge loooooong novel. One of them is a footrace in which the hero, Johnny Shawnessy, beats the fastest man in the county, “Flash” Perkins. With all the to-ing and fro-ing through time — and given the fact that I had a tendency to fall asleep while catching a few chapters before bed — I seemed to have missed the main description of that race. I fast forwarded and rewound and never did find that bit, which was first mentioned in Part One. Then low and behold, I get to the end of Part Four and there it is! There should be a law against narrative techniques like this.

So take my advice, skip this one or try to track down the Elizabeth Taylor movie. But, in the event that you don’t take my advice, I’ll pass along a handy little guide I found on the InterWebs that explains the structure of Raintree County, part by interminable part.

Part I

Time of day: Morning (from dawn until noon; trip to Historical Museum)

Period of Shawnessy’s life recalled: 1839-1859 (from birth to age 19)

Events in U.S. history: Early settlers in Indiana, Polk’s election, Mexican War, etc.

Dominant woman: Nell Gaither

Visitor: Senator Garwood Jones

Mythic accompaniment: Rape of beauty myths: Diana and Actaeon, Venus and Adonis, Pasiphae and the bull; Oedipus and the Sphinx

Part II

Time of day: Afternoon (Patriotic Program presented)

Period of Shawnessy’s life: 1859-1865 (marriage, wartime experiences)

Events in U.S. history: Civil War (John Brown’s raid, Battles of Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, etc.)

Dominant woman: Susanna

Visitor: General Jackson

Mythic accompaniment: Trojan War, wanderings of Odysseus.

Part III

Time of day: Evening

Period of Shawnessy’s life recalled: 1865-1877 (trip to New York)

Events in U.S. history: Gilded Age (presidency of Grant, Great Railroad Strike, etc.)

Dominant woman: Laura Golden

Visitor: Cash Carney

Mythic accompaniment: Odysseus, Golden Calf

Part IV

Time of Day: night

Period of Shawnessy’s life: 1877-1892 (second marriage)

Events in U.S. history: Cleveland reelected, Populist Party convenes

Dominant woman: Esther Root

Visitor: Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles

Mythic accompaniment: Adam and Eve, Oedipus and the Sphinx

 

So there you have it. Venture to Raintree County if you must. But for my money, if the mythologizing and Deep Inner Meaning prevent you from caring for the characters or finding them real or sympathetic in any way, it’s just a game of “Spot the Allusion”. There is sometimes a reason why even highly lauded novels lapse into obscurity.

Now excuse me while I go place The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a more prominent place on the shelf.

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3 Comments

  1. KathyB

    Never wanted to read the book, although I think some of the filming took place in Kentucky. I have vague memories of going out in the woods to search for this magical tree (eight year olds love quests in the woods). I inherited a golden raintree in the small back yard up in Highland Heights. Pretty.

    Definitely American and of significant scope, I recommend The Dollmaker by Harriet Arnow. Like with Huck, there is a little dialect to get used to in the beginning. Wonderful book that follows the migration from Appalachia to Michigan.I have never heard it read aloud.

    Not long ago I reread Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Another significant piece of American literature.

    Better stop now before I get on a roll.

  2. pam johnson

    Huck Finn: hands down, THE American novel. The fact that it still provokes controversy a century plus later is a testament to its enduring “American-ness.” In the interest of geographic balance, how about adding Stegner and Steinbeck? Yeah, I know any list like this is subject to so many opinions, but Twain, and Huck in particular, speak to all of us, regardless of geography.

  3. sazzy

    I love your review of the book. This is what scares me about going back to read old books i thought were so great at the time. Fortunately i never knew this was a book first! I only knew the story from the movie which probably wasn’t that great either….but…. anything with liz, monty and eva marie-saint when they were young is worth seeing.

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