The Reading Life, Part three

I wonder if there’s a time in a reader’s life when she’s looking to have her heart broken.  (And not just “her”; this is probably true of the male of the reader species as well.)  Say one has lived an unremarkable life with some sadness and trauma but not enough to deform; at some point, most likely in teenager- and young-adulthood, pure pathos will have its strongest appeal.

Like all elements of storytelling, pathos comes in both branded and generic versions, in slick packaging backed up by marketing campaigns or a plain brown wrapper.  I would put Raintree County in a parchment wrapper, because even though it scorns quick and easy pathways to heartbreak, it still finds them by circuitous route: lost love, death of innocence, war among brothers, hard-won wisdom.  And even though it tries way too hard, it sometimes succeeds.

Pathos, though too often hooked up with its adjective form pathetic, is a great thing if properly used.  It’s the key to compassion, a wellspring of human feeling–“that which arouses sympathy or pity,” according to my dictionary.  Every bestselling author of chicklit keeps the pathos bottle on her desk for easy reach, but so did the greatest.  Tolstoy was the master.

Ross Lockridge Jr. was a promising apprentice.  His life story is as pathetic (in the literary sense) as anything he wrote–which wasn’t that much.  When his first effort, an epic poem, couldn’t find a publisher, he funneled his epic-poetry instincts into a novel.  Raintree County took seven years to write, during which he supported his family by teaching college literature while their three-room apartment filled up with manuscript pages–thousands of pages, which his wife typed up after putting the children to bed.  The submitted manuscript ran to over 1000 pages–which, after not-enough editing, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1947.  Though critical reaction was mixed, Raintree County won the Pulitizer Prize for that year, snagged the January selection slot in the Book-of-the-Month Club, and  eventually became a movie.  Two months after publication, having achieved his dream, the author killed himself.  He was just a few weeks shy of 34 years old.

I didn’t know all this when I found his magnum opus on the shelves of the local college library.  I was 22, recently married, unemployed, undergoing transformation.  Also looking for something nice and long and historical to read.  This one fit the bill, and then some: one of those books I carried to the bathroom with me and balanced on the rim of the tub and propped up by the kitchen sink while washing dishes (it’s amazing that more of my bathtub books didn’t drown).  And after finally coming to the end I was still so tangled in the story my husband accused me of being somewhere else for the last three days.  He was right.

It’s not that good the second time–I only reread the whole thing once, sometime in the eighties, after finding it in the remainder bin at Waldenbooks.  Even the first time through, it was often frustrating.  First I had to get used to the substitution of dashes for quotation marks, which gives the dialogue a breathless quality not always appropriate.  Then the confusing time shifts, signaled when the last sentence of one chapter becomes the first sentence of the next.  Lockridge was a student both of literature and American History: he knew his stuff, and was determined to pack in all of it. 

Raintree County is modeled after Ulysses, in that it covers a single day in the life of the main character–July 4, 1892–spiked with flashbacks, dream sequences, and long philosophical discursions.  John Wycliff Shawnessy, age 52, is a lifelong resident of Raintree County, Indiana: a schoolteacher with a wife and three children when the story opens.  Though his life seems unremarkable, it’s really epic, with echoes of his country’s growing pains and young-adult traumas. 

The flashbacks take the reader through John’s first memories, intellectual awakenings and early ambitions, his first loves and losses, his first tragedy, his civil war experience, his sadder-but-wiser postwar days and his frustrated ambitions.  The present-day narrative plods through long discourses with old friends on What It All Means.  The flashbacks run parallel with the hour-by-hour July 4 account, mostly chronological except for the author’s maddening technique of building up to a key scene and then skipping right over it.  The first of these is a Fourth of July footrace between young Johnny and Flash Perkins, the fastest runner in the county.  It’s a week before the race, and then suddenly it’s a couple of months after: Johnny receives a fateful letter and the reader is protesting, “Wait a minute!  What about the race?”  We’re not even sure who won until near the end.  There are four or five of these skipped scened, pivotal moments in Johnny’s life, which the author saves for the final 100-or-so pages.  In some ways that adds to their impact, but he could never get away with it now–or his habit of wedging fictitious newspaper “reports” (“Epic Fragment from the Mythic Examiner“) during these key narratives.  Usually this is just precious (in the bad sense), but in the scene where Johnny loses his virginity (with unhappy consequences), it’s ridiculous.

What saves the novel from its author’s pretensions is, first, its fundamental good will.  Lockridge follows the rule that an author must love all his characters, and it rubs off on the reader.  Even the ones we shouldn’t like we end up liking, if not because of some redeeming quality, then because of their exuberant sense of personality.  (I should say that his female characters are not as successful as the male ones, but there aren’t as many of them.)  This is especially true of the central character who, while not flamboyant like some of the others, remains wry and witty and attractive and doesn’t take himself too seriously.  I’ve read enough mid-century novels to recognize an insufferable hero, and John Shawnessy is not one.  Supporting characters, while representative of American “types” (the crooked politician, the oily financier, the cynical intellectual) still manage to be themselves.

Second, it’s really funny in places, if you appreciate mid-American, folksy humor of the Mark-Twain sort.  For example: John’s father, Dr. T. D. Shawnessy, has built up a literary local-poet’s reputation, but he doesn’t write merely for pleasure.  His goal is the betterment of mankind, and his most famous work is an “Ode on the Evils of Tobacco,” containing these memorable lines: “Some do it chew and some it smoke/ And some it up their nose do poke.” 

And third, even though the story shifts into melodrama, it’s legitimate melodrama.  The author has invested enough in the characters to make their fate pay off in emotional punch: though over-padded, the loss of John’s innocence and the fate of his first marriage and continual thwarting of his ambitions are genuinely affecting.  His acceptance of circumstance, making a good life in spite of deep disappointment, is heroic.  Which makes it even more sad that the author couldn’t achieve that same goal.  I wonder if, having so clearly aimed at the Great American Novel, he couldn’t stand it that he missed.

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