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.
Oddly, for a writer who loves to find the literary link wherever he goes, there's no mention of Concrete's being Tobias Wolff's hometown and subject matter. But determined to fit in, Raban makes himself home at a local establishment, where "I dined on chicken fried steak, lit up a Swisher-Sweet, and called for a Christian Brother's brandy..." Yes, just one of the boys in Concrete: the only thing lacking is a monocle and top hat.
For all Raban's attempts to be at a remove, he does sometimes fall into the classically comic role of Englishman on the plains. The frontier is full of wonderful incongruities — think of Oscar Wilde riding a bucket into a mine shaft in Leadville, Colorado. Raban's efforts to explain Western patois to the readers of the Sunday Independent are as amusing as a tenderfoot ordering milk in a saloon: "To call someone 'pardner' is to make the significant announcement that you are on close tutoyer terms...." It's not only the Indians who get to laugh at white anthropology.
Raban at times embodies the determined effort to civilize a place even while professing to love its roughness. One way Raban does this is by bringing great literature to his perspective. When he writes about Seattle, he is not concerned with what Murray Morgan, or Emmett Watson, or Betty MacDonald or Tim Egan or David Guterson have said about it. He leads with a brief impression of Henry James who passed through once. Forget Barry Lopez or Sherman Alexie: perspective is provided by Dickens and Trollope, who often are Raban's traveling companions. In his piece "Seagoing," he tells us who sits on the bookshelf of his sailboat: its your senior literature list.
Raban also embodies the region's tensions between urban and rural. Concrete is not a place to encounter a fellow admirer of Trollope, but is a delightful escape. Raban finds discomfort in Seattle, and has fun pounding the pinata of "Metronaturals" and the smugness of a provincial, bourgeois town whose chief landmark, the Space Needle, he writes, is akin to a "black-velvet portrait of Jesus." While the town makes a great base camp (more than that, as Raban has helped to raise a Seattle-born daughter here), it still lacks the kind of intellectual engagement of London, the entertaining parties, the social gatherings of brilliant literary minds. One feels Raban's sense of unspoken kinship with a British expat of an earlier generation, Sir Thomas Beecham, who lamented, somewhat sympathetically, Seattle's looming reputation as an "aesthetic dustbin."
This is understandable. While newcomers dominate, there is also a kind of inward, inbred impenetrableness of a neighborhood town of isolates who eschew public life, organize at the community level, and maintain a Western sense that an intellectual life, like a religious one, should be kept somewhat private. Seattle is changing in this regard, but still its egalitarian roots look somewhat askance at rich guys and know-it-alls pontificating outside of Town Hall.
Still, Raban is doing yeoman's work attempting to drag the Pacific Northwest into a global context, in terms of history, literature, economics, even travel. This is partly explained by the fact that in most of these essays (save a few for the Seattle Times), Raban's audience is in New York, London, Boston, folks who don't know us from Adam. So what might seem fresh and exotic for the readers of Granta is less so for Northwest readers.
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