Jonathan Raban, American

Lee Polevoi

Driving Home: An American Journey

Jonathan Raban

496 pages, Pantheon

 

Throughout a long career of travel writing and literary journalism, the British writer Jonathan Raban has expertly blended the personal with the public in a tone that’s never vain or self-aggrandizing. From the relative exuberance of young adulthood in Coasting—about a solo sailboat trip around the coast of England—to the mature, battered-by-life expatriate in Passage to Juneau—another sea journey through the Inside Passage and up to Alaska—we gladly follow his spiritual journeys through whatever territory he chooses to take us. In Driving Home, a bountiful new collection of essays, Raban can also lay claim to being an astute observer of the American scene.

 

In 1990, drawn by the wildness of the Pacific Northwest, Raban immigrated to Seattle from the literary hotbed of London in what he calls “a selfish and irregular move.” In numerous essays, he explores the allure of this northwest corner of the U.S., particularly in the title piece, where he takes off in a “low-slung, thirsty black Dodge Daytona” for an excursion hundreds of miles east through Washington State into Idaho and Montana. On the way, he encounters citizens who don’t fit into any easy categories, some as prickly and colorful as any traveler could hope to find. 

 

Along the way, he ruminates on individuals who have shaped this part of the country, including the explorers Lewis and Clark and writers Bernard Malamud and Richard Hugo. This region has “tended to attract last-chancers in their forties and fifties,” a place “where unsettledness and solitude were part of the normal fabric of things.” Seen through Raban’s eyes, the Pacific Northwest takes on a melancholic air, where the tears of “last-chancers” mingle with ever-present rainfall.

 

“Introductions: Readings” serves as a useful guide at the outset of this book. Seven Types of Ambiguity, the pioneering work of literary critic William Empson, was a revelation for the young Jonathan Raban. “The first lesson Empson taught was to drastically slow down: to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think.” He learns to think of writing as being:

 

Like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly… the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspending cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry…

 

Water, in its many forms, has long fascinated this gifted writer. Spanning nearly two decades, Driving Home contains essays about the joys and terrors of sea travel, the mystery of waves and the catastrophic damage caused by flooding rivers. “Mississippi Water” chronicles the harrowing experience of Americans living hard by the mighty river during the great flood of 1993; the essay contains many up-close portrayals of beleaguered victims ignored by the here-today, gone-tomorrow media. Raban’s ingratiating manner and lack of pretension endear him to the locals, who offer heart-wrenching accounts of their many hardships.

 

At the same time, this piece hints at a shortcoming that is, for better or worse, an occupational hazard of many essay collections. By choosing to include works that date so far back, there’s a good chance some  pieces, however well-written, will seem overtaken by events which, like the overflowing Mississippi, constantly threaten to engulf us all. When the anti-abortionist Randall Terry comments about the disaster on the radio “with a triumphant I-told-you-so squeak in his voice,” and proclaims that “God has a hundred hurricanes, a hundred droughts, a hundred floods” on the way, Raban is rightfully skeptical. But by 2011, given all the natural and man-made tragedies since that time, we may have to acknowledge the tiniest kernel of accuracy in the frenzied evangelist’s prophec­y. (We can also lament the absence of Raban’s reporting on Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)

 

Driving Home includes an array of literary essays, principally on the late poets Philip Larkin and Robert Lowell. By breathing new life into these neglected writers, this does precisely what such pieces ought to do—make us want to return to their work and discover them anew. 

 

Mortified by the catastrophe of George W. Bush’s presidency, and no doubt encouraged by Seattle’s left-leaning politics, Raban has emerged as a keen commentator on American politics.  In essays about September 11, 2001, the ensuing mess at Guantanamo Bay and our “surveillance society,” he rails against the hypocrisy and right-wing lunacy that cost so many Americans their lives for no good or discernible reason. 

 

Again, there is the danger that the writing outlives its natural expiration date, nowhere more keenly than in the ephemeral world of presidential politics. Raban can be absolutely spot-on about the criminality of the Bush Administration and the welcoming changes brought on by Barack Obama’s election, but without some penetrating new insights, what’s the point?  “Indian Country”—an outstanding essay in which he broods on the theme of Gulf-War-as-Hollywood-Western—can stand in for the rest of the Bush-bashing pieces.

 

At times, Driving Home feels like too much of a good thing. Certainly it stands as a welcome introduction for anyone who’s not yet encountered Raban’s work, though at nearly 500 pages, it can seem a little daunting.  But anyone who enjoys lush, evocative prose will find much to savor here, especially when Raban combines the best of the worlds of sea travel and reading:

 

 

At anchor in a lightless British Columbian inlet, where black cedars crowd the ruins of a bankrupt salmon cannery and the rain falls like ink, I shall pine for brilliance and laughter, for rooms full of voices … I rejoice in the thought that my eye might lift from a page of Waugh to the sight of a black bear snuffling in the driftwood at the water’s edge: nature outside the boat, society within, and just an inch of planking between one world and the other.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is the author of The Moon in Deep Winter, a novel.

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