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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review-a-Day for Thu, Sep 22: Driving Home: An American Journey

by Jonathan Raban A review by Debra Gwartney

Jonathan Raban's new collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Journey, could easily have been titled "The Jonathan Raban Reader," as the brisk, smartly crafted pieces are just that representative of Raban's long and illustrative writing life. He is the author of 12 other books, fiction and nonfiction, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award among other prizes. The 44 (yes, 44) selections in this book, written over a near two-decade stretch, are largely culled from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, with others published in such revered pages as the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, Esquire, Outside and Playboy. By combining them in one volume, Raban offers a lively stew of topics, themes that most interest the British citizen turned Seattleite, subjects that get him most excited and riled.

Before we enter the territory of excited and riled, though, Raban first introduces himself -- in one of the most enchanting essays in the book and its first -- as a devoted reader from a young age. A reader who becomes a writer, hugely influenced as a young man by author William Empson who, in Raban's words, taught him to "slow down, to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, savor, question, ponder, think."

We are invited to do the same with Driving Home: to view aspects of American life past, present and future -- with a particular focus on the West -- from this outsider's vantage. To listen, savor, question, ponder, think. Readers have long been drawn to Raban for the elegance of his language and eloquence of his thought -- as well as a wry sense of humor on par with Susan Orlean's; precise research a la John McPhee -- and can expect to find the same in these essays.

"Nowhere do waves break with more reliable splendor than on the melancholy coast of Oregon, where the great Pacific wave trains come to a spectacular end on beaches of pulverized green sand," he writes in "The Waves." "Everything about the place is somber -- the crumbling basalt cliffs, the dripping conifers, the slanting gray cathedral light."

Along with such rich imagery, Raban dishes up an entertaining cast of characters -- poet Philip Larkin, a Seattle woman who visited heaven and then returned to Earth, delightful Montana homesteader Percy Wollaston, less-than-delightful Sarah Palin, to name a few -- though he's at his best when he's on the sea with the likes of George Vancouver, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Francis Chichester (knighted in the 1960s for his solo circumnavigation of the world). He's also at his best when he's roaming the edges of the Columbia River, trying to make real sense out of "the quintessential American experience to arrive in a wild and inhospitable place, bend raw nature to one's own advantage, and make it home."

Some of these pieces, particularly the title essay, Driving Home, feel a bit stale -- they certainly captured a strong sense of their time at the time, but that time (the tech boom in Seattle, the vibrant air of hope around Obama) has passed. And too often the reader is confronted with yet another redundant statement about the West, the qualities that make Seattle distinct, for instance, or about Vancouver's shift from "dizzy elation to sullen melancholy," the deeper he sailed into narrow Pacific inlets.

Still, Raban's voice rings fresh and clear through great majority of this work, and the 500-page book is well worth picking up if only to read the gems, among them the astonishing "Indian Country," the most timeless and revealing essay here, and the only one of the bunch, apparently, that comes to us new, without having been previously published.

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