The Story of a Real-Life Runaway

BOOKS

EXIT THE RAINMAKER by Jonathan Coleman, New York: Atheneum, 391 pp. $18.95

IN May of 1982, Jay Carsey, president of the Charles County Community College in Maryland, did what many people think about, but few have the courage - or the cowardice - to do. He left. Left his wife, left his job, left his friends, left town. He ran away.

Jonathan Coleman has written an investigation of this escape. Only close to the end does the reader find out what happened to Carsey, and the suspense - wanting to know if he is better or worse off - keeps the pages turning.

After a while you don't really care how the book is written, that sometimes the prose sounds like a script from a Dragnet episode. All you can really think about is yourself in Carsey's shoes. Would you have left? Think about your own present position. What would happen if you left everything? Where would you go? Would you be happier?

For Coleman, Carsey is an Everyman figure. Carsey did have problems any man might want to run from. He was an alcoholic, and a fairly advanced one, who hid bottles of liquor in his house and yard the way a squirrel hides nuts. He had a good job - not everyone gets to be a college president - but he was having budget problems and felt the pressure. And then there was his wife, not exactly the ideal mate, or at least that's how she's characterized. She is portrayed as a materialistic social-climber who always seemed to want more from Carsey than she received. The marriage is described as lifeless and unfulfilling for both. Carsey wrote to his wife: ``I am leaving because I know you can't.'' His wife is quoted as saying, ``Jay had a hard time telling me he loved me.'' There may be more to that than just an inability to express emotion.

There are also reasons in a person's psychological background that make such an escape possible. Carsey had responsibility early and did his best to please his parents, both of whom were disappointed in their own lives and placed their hopes on him. He excelled in school and seemed driven toward a life of achievement.

But for whom was he achieving? He clearly felt the pressure of living a life not of his own making, a life full of someone else's roles. That feeling is what seems to have pushed Carsey over the edge, or rather across many state borders.

Coleman sympathizes with Carsey. After all, many people don't strike out on their own or leave relationships that don't work. Instead they lead, in Thoreau's famous phrase, ``lives of quiet desperation.'' But then many people under similar pressures extricate themselves without just disappearing. Carsey could have gotten a divorce, quit his job, embarked on a new career perhaps more to his liking. (Although even after he left he worked at colleges and taught in schools.)

You can't help but feel that the way he left satisfied a side of him that loved melodrama. The title of the book comes from one of the notes he left. He once acted in the play, ``The Rainmaker.''

Perhaps he wanted attention. Like a five-year-old who runs away thinking, ``Boy, when I'm gone they're sure going to miss me.'' What better way to get attention than to disappear. People who get divorced or change jobs aren't usually the subject of front-page articles in the Washington Post.

Carsey didn't stop drinking when he left; in fact, he worked for a while as a bartender in El Paso, Texas, not exactly a smart career move. Many people drink to avoid responsibility, and the more they drink the less able they are to be responsible. The world seen through alcohol, especially the amount Carsey was imbibing, is different, twisted, certainly more melodramatic. You can't help but think that Carsey wouldn't have left if his drinking problem hadn't been so great.

Coleman's story is riveting, even if the writing is not. But the organization of the book is annoying. For one thing, it's hard to keep track of all the characters. Coleman clearly wants to show the ripple effect of such an escape. Many people were affected when Carsey left, not only his wife. The problem is meeting so many people in such a short time.

In the beginning of the book, at least one new person is introduced each chapter, and the chapters are only a few pages long. By Chapter 10, the reader is dealing with almost a dozen people Carsey knew. It's hard to keep so many people straight, and there are also a few too many clich'es in the writing.

One of Carsey's friends tells Coleman that when Carsey was younger he was ``always talking about getting into his red Corvette and driving off into the sunset.'' What Carsey realizes after he leaves is that after the sunset, there's always another sunrise. It's like the saying from the popular movie ``Buckaroo Banzai.'' ``No matter where you go, there you are.''

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