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In Watery America

A name that turns up often in Raban’s new book is that of William Empson, the great British critic, whose instruction in Seven Types of Ambiguity taught Raban to read in a certain way. By this he means to become, when reading, one of the people (as Henry James said novice writers should try to be) on whom nothing is lost. Raban proves it nicely in his Slocum piece when he assembles from the sailor’s life and books all the things Slocum had in mind when he wrote at the end of his own book, Sailing Alone Around the World:

As for aging, why, the dial of my life was turned back till my friends all said, “Slocum is young again.” And so I was, at least ten years younger than the day I felled the first tree for the construction of the Spray.

It was not the regular hours, healthy diet, and bracing sea air that Slocum had in mind, Raban posits. His attention was caught by the throwaway phrase “ten years younger.” Raban tots up the horrors of the decade that sloughed off during the voyage of the Spray: Slocum’s first wife died of a fever in Argentina before he could fetch a doctor; he killed a sailor in Brazil and was held for trial (but acquitted); he took a new wife almost twenty years younger who did not like the ocean (or him, much); and he lost a ship in a storm. What impresses Raban the writer is that these painful memories are all there, in Slocum’s remark, for any reader paying attention; and that Slocum, as fine a writer as he was a navigator, put them there. Raban points it out gently, and at the same time gives his readers notice to read him the same way, as a writer willing to share much with readers who pay attention.

Every journey is a quest of sorts,” Raban writes, “though few travelers have more than a dim inkling of what it is they’re questing for.” Surely, the reader thinks, Raban had more than an inkling. A man following a woman must have true love in mind, and a man tired of a land of rabbits and stale politics must be looking for a land of danger and challenge. Up to a point it is so. But Raban the writer, like a sailor, tacks about the surface of big hidden things; the reader senses something down there in the deep. “In the winter of life,” he writes, “the sea lulls and comforts. It has the look and sound of eternity.”

Raban is in his late sixties. The natural world strikes him as older still, entering “its fifth act” in the manner of a Shakespearean play. “The corpses are piling up onstage,” he writes, “the dying species, razored forests, wrecked habitats.” He imagines but too clearly how the world would judge him, eating alone in a roadside diner, if he did not keep his notebook open beside him, scribbling between mouthfuls—“an aging, unkempt drifter without visible means of support.” Is Driving Home the despairing cry of a Lear who has outlived his three marriages, his hope of writing a book Empson would delight to read, his dream of a decent politics, even his very home planet?

Well, actually, not. Those are all momentary moods, the natural response of a writer paying attention to what is going on around him. The big thing on Raban’s mind is harder to pin down, but he is talking about it when he talks about water. “I like to travel as much as I possibly can,” he writes, “in a boat small enough to manage on my own.”

Crossing oceans alone does not attract him. “I’ve never…more than nibbled at the ocean’s edge,” he writes. His favorite part of small-boat handling is putting in to port at the end of the day, when “an open pub [is] a greater wonder than Chartres Cathedral.” Bad weather brings the relief of dry clothes, and of finding himself alive. Sailing alone makes him hungry for company. “Then you start risking things you wouldn’t dare at home.” For Raban, small boats and open water make everything brighter and more exciting. But along with that, the reader notes, big water draws from Raban a kind of genius for natural description.

Many of the pieces in Driving Home are about water—bodies of water, types of water, forms of water. What’s unusual is his gift for describing the changing character, personality, and mood of water as if he were describing the people in a room. “The Waves,” which appeared in Vogue in 1995, is about his daughter Julia’s first encounter with the sea when she was two. “Nowhere do waves break with more reliable splendor than on the melancholy coast of Oregon,” Raban writes. The ones that at first frightened and then excited Julia began “as wind wrinkles in the surface tension of the sea off the coast of Japan.” A wave, he explains, is “a pulse of energy that travels through the water.” Wind gets the wave going, and it stops only when it runs out of ocean. “Long before they come ashore, waves begin to feel the drag of the sea bottom…. The moment a ten-foot swell finds itself in less than thirteen feet of water, it’s in trouble.”

The climax comes on shore, where Julia ran in the foam of their breaking. There with her father she

watched the waves collapse: saw the diffused sunlight shine apple green through their refining crests; saw the moustache of foam spread suddenly wide across their lips, and then break—the drum-roll climax, the boiling surf, the bronchial wheeze and gargle of spent water on flat sand.

Raban’s gift shines brightest in the short form. The books are in effect cobbled together from a group of related essays, in the way some novels are really collections of short stories. The canvas of Passage to Juneau is especially crowded, with parallel tales of the tortured explorer George Vancouver, who named the islands, bays, and rivers from Puget Sound north; of Raban’s three-year old daughter Julia, an only child who arrived late in his life; of his wife Jean, a dance critic whose tolerance for his frequent absences is running thin; of the impoverished Indian communities along the coast; of his clergyman father, whose death from cancer interrupted Raban’s voyage; of the old salts who resent the weekend yachtsmen; of the abandoned canneries and disappearing salmon. The big thing in Juneau, the thing you want to tell everybody about, is what Raban has to say about the violence of the ocean itself in perpetual war with the tug of the moon, rocky coast, narrow inlets, offshore deeps, and changing weathers.

Each of the Juneau essays is interesting in itself, and together they make a lively book. But the whole is something of a hodgepodge, lacking the clarity and vivid power of the strongest essay in Driving Home, an account of Raban’s reporting trip along a thousand-mile stretch of the Mississippi River during a major flood. “Mississippi Water,” which appeared in Granta in 1993, and the passages about the river in Old Glory are as good as anything ever written about the Mississippi. Mark Twain is of course champion when it comes to people on the river; Huckleberry Finn, often on Raban’s lips, is in a category apart. But Twain does not share Raban’s fascination with what needs to be italicized for emphasis—the water.

Raban confesses to being a timid sailor. Water frightens him. He does not like to be on the water at night and he keeps his eye always peeled for things that might threaten a small boat—the immense swell of the wake of a line of barges pushing upriver, as dangerous as any wave at sea; the violent chop of the river’s surface when the wind comes up; the floating logs or tree stumps that can punch a hole in a boat’s bottom. What fascinates Raban is the violence of the river—the boiling turbulence where currents bite deep into the river bottom, then round back up with sudden force to send boats sliding and skittering off the side into the path of heaven knows what; the whirlpools as big as a baseball field, with power to suck down a log or boat; the greasy swirl of currents biting into river banks, bringing whole bluffs down into the water.

When the river climbed out of its banks last summer,” Raban reports, “it spread like a stain over Iowa and Illinois.” By the time Raban got there “the sunlit water was a yellowish purple, the color of a ripe bruise.” A rainstorm later turned it into “an enormous sheet of dirty gauze.” The motion of the river was not steady and monolithic but “more like…the contents of a washing machine. It spun and tumbled, doubling back in swirling eddies.” When the water level dropped slightly a strip of land was revealed

ten or twelve feet wide, of shiny black goo—a compound of rotting grass and cornstalks, drainwater, fertilizers, oil, and dead fish…. When the Mississippi really went down, it would leave a margin of fetid slime miles wide on either side.

In “Mississippi Water,” Raban has only one thing in mind—to describe the river. He meets people, sees startling things, has thoughts, but it is the river itself that holds his attention, not something the river puts him in mind of, or suggests, or stands for. “The Mississippi looks as if it had been put here,” he writes, “to teach the God-fearing Midwest a lesson about stubborn and unregenerate nature.” The river’s power and simple purpose, like the sea’s, help to place Raban in the universe. Water’s message, which he returns to often in his books and essays, does not appear to sadden or frighten him. He does not feel diminished by water’s indifference, but interested, calmed, and clarified. It all makes perfect sense. “The more turbulent the sea, the richer it’s likely to be in tiny forms of life and, consequently, in big ones too.” That means not just watchful human bystanders like Raban but grander creatures yet—killer whales, for example.

Seattle can be a rainy, dismal city, wrapped in fog, too busy to remember what lies all around, but it has its glories. Sometimes, down at the end of one of Seattle’s streets, where the city ends and the water begins, Raban sees the wilder world he came for—“the faint plume in the air, like a twist of smoke from a dying campfire, where an orca is blowing.” Raban betrays no sigh of regret. He is content with water’s message. “That’s…how I want it on my own tombstone, please,” he writes. “Came to Wash. 1990.

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