Jonathan Raban Takes the Scenic Route

A review of Driving Home, the essayist’s latest collection

Driving Home: An American Journey | By Jonathan Raban | Pantheon Books | 496 pp, $29.95

It’s a shame that essayist and critic Jonathan Raban is in his comfortable sixties instead of his restless thirties. The world needs a writer like him hopscotching the globe, making sense of the hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis with which we’re bedeviled.

This thought occurred to me as I was reading Driving Home, a collection of various essays written by Raban over the last twenty years. Raban’s abilities as a writer are virtually unrivaled when it comes to explaining our relationship with landscapes and nature, and he’s unrivaled, period, when describing water in all its forms, be it a placid puddle or a storm-swirled sea.

The best piece in the book is “Mississippi Water,” an essay for Granta about the catastrophic 1993 flooding of the Mississippi River. The article is an expert mixture of easy storytelling, anecdotal history, and the hard science of potamology. In it, Raban captures the contours of natural disaster in ways that a television camera could only intimate:

…The trouble with [Corps of Engineers’] figures is that they make it sound as if the Mississippi was traveling downstream with the concentrated energy of a train. But its actual motion was more like that of the contents of a washing machine. It spun and tumbled, doubling back in swirling eddies and countercurrents. The friction of the water against the river bottom put a brake on the stream, making it somersault over on itself like an ocean wave tripped by a shelving beach…Wherever one looked, the water was moving like smoke in coils and wreaths.
“Mississippi Water” is reason enough to buy Driving Home, but that’s hardly the only reason. Throughout the collection, an uneven but worthy mixture of personal essays, critical reviews, historical meditations, nonfiction journalism, and political screeds, Raban showcases his craftsmanship as a writer and his bona fides as an intellectual. Every word is impeccably chosen, every metaphor meticulously selected. Raban describes his own writing process in the essay “Keeping a Notebook”:
You try a phrase out: it rings false. That’s not it - it wasn’t like that…You have to mail a stack of rejection slips to yourself before you hit on the phrase that rings true. Successive errors narrow the field to an increasingly find band, then—Snap! When you do find a match between the provisional words in your head and the shadowy, half-buried recollection of events, there’s no mistaking it; it’s as plain as a pair of jacks on the table.

Raban is an Englishman who moved to Seattle in 1990 at the age of forty-seven (“I had met someone,” he explains), and the American West in general and the Pacific Northwest in particular are the principal subject matter for many of these essays—not to mention Bad Land, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction, his brilliant memoir A Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, and his less successful novel Waxwings. One can only imagine that Raban’s favorite editors are the ones who allow him to thoroughly rhapsodize about fishing or the “raw and bloody” nature of a Seattle sunset. Whatever those relationships, we are all better off when Raban is allowed to take his time.

After reading a number of these essays in a row, however, even Raban’s flawless style begins to feel distinctly aloof, chiefly because people are often incidental to Raban’s brand of storytelling. Like the Bierstadt paintings Raban references so often, people are never the primary features of his portraits—his human subjects are not even autonomous, but subject to the consequences of the surrounding vistas. It’s fairly telling to see Raban describe, from a comfortable distance on a boat on Lake Washington, how Bill Gates’s wealthy estate challenged the landscape around it, rather than making any attempt to meet or describe the Microsoft founder in the flesh.

The Driving Home collection changes course more than halfway through, as Raban abruptly turns his critical eye toward American politics. Almost half the shorter essays written in the past ten years deal with this new subject, apparently because Raban, the man who “loves to watch waves,” has no tolerance for the political and cultural squalls that flashed through his adopted country after the World Trade Center attacks.

Raban raises legitimate points, and tightens his prose to a whetted edge in order to make them. The state has gone too far in monitoring its residents, and a submissive citizenry is to blame for it. President Bush’s Guantánamo Bay is operating outside the law. American media conspired with Bush after the terrorist attacks to give us a warped, harmful vision of American culture that “[reached] for the language of the 1950s Western.”

I recall reading many of these essays when they were first published in The Guardian and the London Review of Books. They did add to my general understanding of the climate at the time, but not nearly to the degree that Raban’s more leisurely pieces have added to my knowledge of, say, maritime history. And while Raban has supplied serviceable reportage and analysis of our post-9-11 world, others have positively excelled. To toss off three: Paul Krugman on the economics, Frank Rich on the politics, and Garry Wills on the history.

And, frankly, Raban’s election-year essays Barack Obama are naïve and embarrassing. These days, nobody but Obama’s critics want to remember the schoolchild crush the intellectual left had for “The One,” and if there’s a lesson there, it’s that we should not turn to reserved British writers for our electoral advice.

But there’s so much to admire in this collection that Driving Home shouldn’t be judged on these few, final essays. Raban’s ruminative, singular prose is a real treat. I hope he’s out on some lake on a motorboat right now, puttering around with an antique fishing pole, one eye on a worn copy of Trollope, another glancing around for the next sunset to describe.

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Phil Campbell is the author of Zioncheck for President. Tags: , , , , ,