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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