In Watery America

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.