November 2011

Jonathan Crowl

nonfiction

Driving Home: An American Journey by Jonathan Raban

Like nearly every resident of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Raban hasn't been around long. The England-born author and essayist moved to Seattle some twenty years ago, and much of his writing since has featured the shifting surface of a region and country that are not long departed from their wild existence. Seattle in particular is an urban outpost in a barely settled west, and Raban ultimately identifies with the shallow roots of the city and region, having barely a foothold in this new world he inhabits. 

Raban is an analyst of shifting landscapes. These works form the foundation of Driving Home: An American Journey, a collection of essays written by Raban during his twenty years of American residence. A mix of book reviews, literary analyses, and commissioned essays for newspapers and magazines, all of the works deal, in some manner, with the landscape of America -- one that is not nearly as controlled as we would like to think. Raban visits places where the earth is shifting beneath the feet of individuals and entire towns. He watches the Mississippi River break the chains of human engineering and listens to an old man's lament for the vanishing wilds of the West. Yet he also travels the Western route of Lewis and Clark, which even two hundred years into the past was populated with roadways and the ominous rumbles of Manifest hunger. 

His strongest work is found in the book's namesake, a massive multipart narrative originally published in England's The Independent on Sunday. New to America, Raban leaves his Seattle home in hopes of locating himself in relation to the geography. He visits timber towns hand-tied by increased environmental awareness and passes the humble desert outposts of God-fearing Americans. Along the way Raban uses literature to trace the influence of these landscapes on their inhabitants. His return trip takes him along the Columbia River and the general route of Lewis and Clark, constructing a dialogue between the pair's journal entries and Raban himself. 

Raban is far from the first foreigner to wander around the United States in an attempt to understand the place. In fact, his particular position -- an Englishman driving the country, making conversation in bars and trying to figure out America -- has been performed to commercial success by Bill Bryson, a transplant to England from the plains of Des Moines. Both seek out characters in the same places and fix a quizzical eye on American society. Both also season their stories with wit. But when Bryson gets flustered and retires to his hotel room with a six-pack, Raban presses on in search of answers buried in the bedrock. The result is an illuminating narrative that learns more on research, observation and contemplation than on the author's dependence on creating comedy through himself. Despite similar travels, Bryson's work uses his travels as a backdrop to his own personal narrative. 

This is all fine and entertaining, but it fails to immerse us in a place the way Raban's work often does. Although Raban places himself in his work, it often serves to improve the reader's understanding of the complicated undercurrents that create surface movement. Raban's essays read like excavation projects, bringing to the surface that which lies deep beneath, and which has been built over and on time and again. This is also true in his essays on books and literature: the first essay, "Introduction: Readings," introduces the reader to the book Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson -- a book that delves beneath the surface meaning of words and passages in famous literature to expose the implied and double meanings, subtext and exquisite craft of great literature. Raban's travels, and his book, read in a similar manner -- while following superficial paths across America's surface, the deeper meanings and explanations come alive, treating the reader to an extra dimension of vision. Raban is a more immediate example of what most of us descend from -- a foreigner in a strange place -- but Raban's perspective shows us more about our inhabited lands than what we might see from our individual, first-person views. It may not be what we expected, but it is home nonetheless, and Driving Home draws us nearer.

Driving Home: An American Journey by Jonathan Raban
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307379917
512 Pages