Two decades of smart observation of the country’s highways and byways.

Driving Home: An American Journey. Jonathan Raban. Pantheon. 496 pages. $30. Reviewed by Christine Thomas

Jonathan Raban may have lived in Seattle for more than 20 years — he moved there from London for love in 1990 — but his weighty new essay collection is inescapably English. Spanning 17 years of work for such eminent publications as The New York Review of Books, Granta, The Financial Times and The Guardian, Raban’s pieces are properly presentable and, though they include insights about expatriate American life, safely veil the man behind literary and journalistic pursuits.Raban takes a modest, hands-off approach, submitting his work chronologically from 1993-2010 instead of by theme or purpose, and including work published for public consumption. He asserts the essays are mere “readings” of his new landscape and “the unfinished chronicle of my attempt to make a home” in his new country, and doesn’t expound on accomplishments or make overarching declarations. The power of Raban’s writing stands alone, and it is often quite mesmerizing.

The first and title essay, for example, is intimate, adventurous and exacting, and sets a high bar for the remaining smart and intriguing missives. Many descriptions are simply beautiful, boring into the stillness of moments. “The road got darker and darker as it climbed toward the blue snowfield on the peaks. The tree farms dripped,” he writes about his Washington and Montana road trip. “[T]he windshield was spotted with the asterisks of singleton snowflakes melting as they hit the glass.” His description of a “Pacific roller” as an “arched wave hung in space, as thick and viscous-looking as a tower of treacle” likewise showcases intense and transportational observation.

As the book inches forward, the essays reveal Raban’s deepening sense of at-home-ness in America and of his new home’s effects on him.

The collection’s organization also happily imparts the arc of Raban’s journey of understanding. First, he turns to explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, and authors such as Roethke and Malamud, to read about those who came before. From there, he tugs at the rift between nature, the city and its dwellers, probing what he calls “the war between man and nature,” of nature on culture and between cities and their outlying towns. He also delves unabashed into nature itself, especially water, waves, sea exploration and the shore — symbolically connecting his new home with England. Peppered throughout are loosely personal stories, such as Raban’s trip to Hawaii with his daughter and his evocative journey along the Mississippi during the 1993 flood; book reviews showcasing his prowess as a sharp but fair critic that do little for the book’s cohesion; and prescient meditations on politics and society, from Obama and 9/11 to surveillance and our “cyber landscape,” and surprisingly, his personal attendance at a recent Tea Party rally.

As the book inches forward, the essays reveal Raban’s deepening sense of at-home-ness in America and of his new home’s effects on him. We see his shifting attitudes toward Seattle over time, from tentative newcomer in 1990, progressing to broader understanding when calling it “a novel just beginning” that is “off to a good start” in 2000, and finally in 2004 the all-knowing resident calling on Seattle to wake up and grow up. By the end, Driving Home becomes a multi-layered American landscape as Raban sees it, even if it offers only tantalizing glimpses of the earnest and engaged Englishman who lives there. LL

for the Miami Herald

Advertisements