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In Watery America

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Mike Urban/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Jonathan Raban, Elliot Bay, Seattle, Washington, 2007

Twenty years after following a woman to Seattle, the English writer Jonathan Raban is still unsure if the rainy city with its occasional glimpse of Mount Rainier is the place he was meant to call home. He likes the big trees, the “raw and bloody” sunsets, and the erratic tides—the “wateriness” of the place. But some things about the city irritate him—the way dinner parties are organized, for one thing. There are too few, in Raban’s view. Invitations go out weeks in advance. The guests don’t really know each other. Table talk tends toward the “serial monologue,” not the lively exchanges over “national politics, new books and plays, [and] salacious gossip” that Raban prefers.

Seattle, Raban found, is a city of exercise fanatics and early risers. Yawns appear soon after dessert and everyone is back on the street before ten. Raban came of age with the spirited talk of bibulous London where the exchange continued into the small hours with second and third bottles of wine. He misses that convivial place, or perhaps only his spent youth.

Raban says little about the land and life he left behind in Driving Home: An American Journey, his new collection of occasional pieces published in magazines and newspapers, loosely connected by their American settings. It’s clear that he was ready for a radical change in 1990, the year he departed, but the reasons must be pieced together from casual asides. Part of the explanation was Britain itself, grown damp and spiritless in the age of Margaret Thatcher. “In England, all land looks owned,” Raban remarks, and by owned, it is clear, he means worked, changed, controlled, and domesticated—“a country where the wild things were rabbits and foxes.”

But the big reason was the end of a marriage. “At forty-seven I felt cracked and dry,” he reports. From London, the Pacific Northwest seemed the “far-western stronghold of the second chance, second family, second career.” Raban’s explanation for removing himself to American shores is slyly suggestive of Ishmael’s rationale for withdrawing to the watery part of the world. Ishmael said it was his way of driving off the spleen; for Raban it was a middle-aging writer’s response to a moment marked now or never.

Raban’s dislike of Margaret Thatcher maps his place on political questions. He’s a late-night talker who dislikes Tories. Call him a liberal. A number of the pieces in Driving Home are about American politics—the night of Obama’s election, for example, when Raban’s “tear ducts did their job” and he concluded with relief “that, after eight years of manic derangement, America had at last come to its senses.” The manic derangement, in Raban’s view, all began with the shock of the terrorist attacks a decade ago. The Tory approach, adopted by President Bush, was to gear up to rid the world of the Islamic threat by any means necessary. In “September 11: The Price We’ve Paid,” published in The Independent on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Raban quotes Vice President Cheney’s husky-voiced pledge to work “the dark side,” to act “quietly, without any discussions,” to embrace the “mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business” of tracking down terrorists and killing them. Down that road, Raban notes, lay “the peculiar institution of Guantánamo Bay.” (Note “peculiar institution”—a fine example of Raban’s ear for picking phrases with resonance.)

In Guantánamo, Cheney’s taste for dirty business conducted out of sight came to full flower, an emblematic example, in Raban’s view, of the price Americans have paid for giving President Bush carte blanche to decide why we were attacked, who attacked us, and what we ought to do about it. Raban does not address the Islamic threat, which fades in its capacity for harm compared to the manic derangement that sent American armies into Afghanistan and Iraq, both now teetering on the edge of chaos. The really shocking thing about the whole episode, in my view, and I am guessing in Raban’s, was the sudden uncritical readiness of the American Congress, media, and people, taken in the large, to trust President Bush to shut US borders, violate the Constitution, abrogate the Geneva Conventions, and invade Iraq without cause on borrowed money. Any late-night talker who dislikes Tories has probably got a dozen items at tongue-tip that he or she would like to add to the mounting due bill of September 11.

But disliking Tories is not the whole of Raban’s politics. He’s a devoted listener as well and the reader will meet a wide range of talkative Americans in Driving Home, from writers in Missoula, Montana, and a fly fisherman casting for steelhead trout on the Snoqualmie River to the crowd of Tea Party malcontents who showed up in the 18,000-square-foot Tennessee Ballroom a year ago last February. Disguised as an ordinary malcontent who “had my own quarrels with big government,” Raban talked and listened his way through the crowd, which, he found, was “a loose congeries of unlike minds.” Raban met Tea Partiers who felt guilty about missing a march on Washington when they were traveling the Amalfi Coast in Italy, Tea Partiers who slipped out of meetings “because they’d taken offense at the copious prayers,” Tea Partiers who thought the Birthers were stupid and maybe even “a liberal plant,” Tea Partiers who regretted the no-wine-at-dinner rule of what they had begun to see as a spoilsport Tea Party Nation.

Raban was glad to find this range of attitudes, but went to Nashville to get a clearer sense of what to worry about, and he found plenty. The big thing wasn’t the fact that the Tea Partiers liked Sarah Palin and he didn’t. It was the mood, the tone. He was struck by one man’s remark—“delicately balanced between eagerness and regret”—that came at the end of a dinner-long back-and-forth on the groups undermining America. When all else failed, the man said, “It may still come to shooting.” In those words, and in the Tea Party generally, Raban found something ominous that reminded him of a lynch mob as sundown approached. The partiers called Obama “the idiot” or “that nitwit.” They said he was “a committed socialist ideologue” and stressed his middle name—Hussein! They called him a Kenyan impostor and likened his administration to “the Third Reich” (following FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society). They said he was leading America toward “socialist totalitarianism.” The something that held these people together, Raban found, was generally angry, racist, and dotty.

Escaping the “long, despotic, and intransigent reign” of Margaret Thatcher was only a proximate cause of Raban’s departure for Seattle. The move was in fact a logical next step in a life tantalized, fascinated, and irritated—in some degree even obsessed—by America. The central work of Raban’s life might be described as an effort to determine what America is like, and his approach was by water. At the age of seven he was introduced to the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he read stretched out on the floor of a garret room in the vicarage at Hempton near Norwich. A short walk down the road from Raban’s childhood home took the boy to the trouty pool below Banham’s Flour Mill on the Wensum River, a tame introduction to the watery world, compared to the mighty Mississippi of his imagining. But the river and Huck Finn both lodged in Raban’s mind and the boy with his fishing pole and corncob pipe, as well as the novel, was the subject of one of Raban’s first works, a forty-eight-page pamphlet of literary criticism published in 1968, when he was in his mid-twenties.

A dozen years later he tackled the river itself in an aluminum boat with an outboard motor; experienced rivermen said both were too small for the dangers he could expect to encounter, including the wake of giant tugs pushing barges, and sudden storms. “You’ve got to watch the sky,” Raban was told. “You ever see anything queer about it…you get off the river.” By the end of his journey, Raban understood why it was hard to explain what to look for. Queer is unspecific. But when you saw it you needed to move.

In Old Glory, published in 1981, Raban described not only nature’s vast riverine wonder, but the American populace along the Mississippi banks, who kept one eye always on the river, which took lives and sometimes whole towns. The people were barely getting by, for the most part. Raban found them split irreconcilably less by circumstance than by mood, between the cheerful and the sour. Half the people he met in the rundown river towns, abandoned by industry and commerce, were thoughtful greeters who loved to talk with a stranger—liberals, in fact; and the other half were mean-spirited monologists, brimful of complaint—Tea Partiers in the larval stage. Their preferred subject was the people who were ruining America. Raban took note of their anger and resentment, and several pieces in the new book return to this dismal theme.

Many of Raban’s seventeen previous books involve the watery part of the world, including Old Glory, a commercial success so robust he moved for a time to the Isle of Man to escape taxes; Coasting (1986), about a small-boat cruise along the shores of England made while Raban was rethinking his life; and Passage to Juneau (1999), in which the author sailed a thirty-five-foot ketch up the tricky Inside Passage to Alaska, a trip also made at a time when he had plenty to think about—the death of his father and the end of the marriage that brought him to Seattle in the first place. You might worry that these sorrows will get in the way of the small-boat adventures, but instead they drive the narrative. The word “adventure” implies risk, and risk quickens us when it threatens someone we care about. Raban doesn’t overdo it; there’s just enough of him in his books to give the reader a companion, to whose fate we cannot be indifferent.

Raban came to writing early in life, to sailing late, but he took it up seriously and three of the pieces in the new book are about famous solo voyages. Francis Chichester circled the world in 1966–1967 not to enjoy himself, but in an impossible bid to best the times of the great clipper ships of the nineteenth century. During an around-the-world solo race two years later, Donald Crowhurst only pretended to compete, dawdling about the South Atlantic and faking his log entries. As the race neared its end and the moment of truth approached, Crowhurst drowned himself. Both men interest Raban mainly because they were crazy. His admiration is reserved for the extraordinary journey undertaken in 1895 by Joshua Slocum in the Spray, a onetime oyster boat that Slocum rebuilt from scratch. It’s not hard to see what drew Raban to Slocum’s story—his triumph in sailing the thirty-seven-foot, gaff-rigged sloop around the world, something never previously done; and Slocum’s reasons for setting out alone.

Small-boat sailors are amazed by Slocum’s feats of navigation. The usual (and easy) way to measure longitude requires a chronometer set to Greenwich Mean time, but Slocum had only a tin clock missing its minute hand. So he did it the hard way, as Raban describes, by using a sextant to measure the transit of the moon across the night sky, then filling a page or two with higher mathematics. (Raban provides a fuller explanation in Passage to Juneau.) Sailors marvel at Slocum’s ability to cross a vast stretch of ocean to strike a tiny island, spot on, when a miss of a few miles would spell doom. But Raban admires even more Slocum’s serene trust in the ocean itself, which the sailor thought “much maligned.” He spent his time reading, or cooking his dinner, or watching birds and fish, or in untroubled sleep as the Spray made its way unerringly toward the next landfall with its helm lashed. Twenty-seven hundred miles in twenty-three days with only three hours at the wheel? Many have doubted this could be true, but Raban is not among them. He trusts Slocum as much as Slocum trusted his boat.

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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