Jonathan Raban is a gifted writer. Those gifts include his erudition, his powers of description, the links his mind makes between literature and the landscape. An essential ingredient for the travel writer is also a misfit status, maintaining discomfort that allows him to look fresh at his surroundings, to be a stranger in a strange land. It gives his work edge, and distance.
This is especially true when Raban writes about his adopted home, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Even though he came here by choice, Raban writes about the region from the standpoint of the solitary traveler nosing around the new neighborhood. In the lead essay in his new collection of works, Driving Home: An American Journey (Pantheon, $29.95), Raban writes:
More than any other place I've ever lived, it felt all right for me to be a stranger here. I was happy in the Northwest not because I felt at home but because no one else much seemed to be entirely at home either.
As an "American journey," the book is a bit of a bumpy ride, drawn from articles for publications ranging from Vogue and Playboy to The New York Review of Books and The Guardian. It is not simply a Northwest book, though the region has a strong profile in the collection. The pieces cover writing, sailing, art, Mark Twain's Mississippi, Philip Larkin's poetry, life among Tea Partiers, and the misadventures of Shackleton. It's hard to make a wholeness out of such a patchwork, as each assignment is for a specific audience. But Raban's voice is smoky and strong, his accent distinct, his eye sharp. If there is not always a unity of purpose, perspective or subject matter, there is one of voice.
On the subject of the Northwest, Driving Home is all over the map. Raban loves the region, but is alien in it. Many of the pieces in this collection make reference to his first arrival in Seattle in 1990, discovering it to be one of the only cities in the world where people move to be closer to nature, and of being "a newcomer in a city of newcomers." That arrival is repeated so many times in Driving Home's essays that it comes to feels like Raban is stuck in Bill Murray's perpetual Ground Hog Day loop, doomed to eternal repetition of a moment.
Once landed, Raban explores his new home. He was a world traveler before he got here, a voracious reader, a man with a driven curiosity of place. I remember back in 2001 I was planning to attend the WTO meeting in Qatar and looking for a good book on that country. I was assured that the best piece for westerners on the country was still Raban's book Arabia, written in the late '70s. He's a stranger who often gets the goods.
And I always find Raban's descriptions fresh, avoiding classic cliches about the region. Where Northwesterners see nature writ large, Raban sees the manufactured landscapes of the Columbia Plateau. Where we see a mildewy old logging town, Raban sees nobility in the loggers who once swung Paul Bunyan's axe. Where our history tells us that Captain George Vancouver came to map an untouched county, Raban reminds us of the culture clash on board his ship Discovery, between those, like Vancouver, who were horrified at the bleak wilderness (like Desolation Sound), and the places where budding shipboard Romantics experienced awe and saw grandeur. That's an aesthetic generation gap you never learned about in history class.
Raban's determination to cut against Northwest type is sometimes amusing, though also often contradictory. He even finds himself attracted (at one point) to the "gimcrack townships...built by people whose skill as architects and carpenters are not much better than my own." (That's you, Pomeroy.) In an essay on steelheading for Esquire, "Last Call of the Wild," Raban falls in love with Concrete, Washington:
In Concrete, people knew how to relate to nature: they chopped it down, shot it, trapped it, killed it, ate it. I liked Concrete a lot. It was a welcome escape from the goody-goody atmosphere of Seattle.
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