Jonathan Raban's 'Driving Home' an engaging look at American culture and politics

Book review: 'Driving Home: An American Journey,' by Jonathan Raban. Pantheon Books, $30.

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Today's brain feed arrives in visually enhanced bytes on a perpetual screen roll, is processed and digested, if not comprehended, then spit out. That modernism makes Jonathan Raban's "Driving Home" a welcome anomaly. This "American Journey" is the work of a fine example of that rapidly disappearing species, the man of letters.

Mr. Raban writes only after he has gathered all the information he needs to make an assertion, posit a thesis, interpret complex data that are often superficially contradictory. This boatman -- Mr. Raban discusses navigation and engineering with authority -- is a deep thinker. His style, however, is so engaging the reader eagerly joins him in the intellectual currents he animates.

Mr. Raban has been writing fiction and nonfiction since the late '60s. His latest work collects essays and memoirs from publications spanning Granta, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Guardian and more. Its key topics are his adopted home of Seattle; England, the native land he can't quite forswear; politics; culture; travel; nature; and above all else, water. Its central focus is the disconnect between the urban and the natural, exemplified in the gap between Seattle and the rest of Washington.

"Our nature-fixatedness has turned Seattle into a place where nobody dresses up for anything short of a wedding or a funeral, where dinner parties, arranged weeks beforehand, end on the stroke of 10, where the vital hum and buzz of city living are generally regarded as the regrettable price to be paid for the pleasure of being able to escape into the countryside," he groused in the Seattle Times in 2004. "As a result, Seattle's social fabric is depressingly threadbare, existing as it does in pockets of underground resistance to the city's prevailing tone."

It is tempting simply to quote Mr. Raban, whose writing is informed by a curious mixture of idealism and melancholy. It is harder to explain him, because he is both a Luddite (his essays on troubled world traveler Joshua Slocum and recondite, pretentious and talented British poet Philip Larkin speak to a yearning for a vanished authenticity) and a futurist (try "An Englishman in America," his mordant take on "Internet native" Neil Entwistle). He's also an acute political observer who bemoaned Sarah Palin at her peak while acknowledging her pull ("Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill") and touted Barack Obama for the very restraint that frustrates so many erstwhile supporters now.

Mr. Raban parses culture in depth, analyzing the deterioration of urban life in "Cyber City," tracking flooding along the Mississippi River in the sustained, lyrical "Mississippi Water" and the way the definition of art evolves in "Battleground of the Eye," a meditation on the relationship between landscaping and land shaping. He calls the Columbia white sturgeon more wondrous than the salmon in "Second Nature," his elegy for the Columbia River, and puts naturalist John Muir in his prejudiced, checkered place in "The Curse of the Sublime," yet another variation on his theme of alternate, conflicting visions of the rural West.

He ends with "At the Tea Party," an article he wrote for The New York Review of Books in March 2010, as a Tea Party member who began to have second thoughts during the organization's convention in Opryland, the conference-hotel megacomplex in Nashville.

More than 20 years ago, I covered a technology conference in Opryland for a hotel magazine. When I checked in, a group of women in parasols and crinoline dresses pirouetted through the lobby, presumably for Southern flavor. In a corner was a band playing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," that bittersweet paean to the old South by The Band, a Canadian group. Mr. Raban captures the place perfectly:

"The scenic route from my hotel room to the convention center led through nine acres of jasmine-scented tropical rainforest, contained by interlocking atriums that resembled London's 1851 Crystal Palace. Bridges and winding pathways ran past waterfalls and fountains through a dense jungle of banana trees, palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, canna, ferns, vines and orchids. ... I'd pass Epcot-style recreations of old French New Orleans; an antebellum planter's mansion; a bit of Italy; a quaint village street, possibly English; and a Dublin pub. Such a concentrated dose of surreality, taken before breakfast, helped prepare one for life in the alternative world that was on offer in the ballroom."

Mr. Raban opens the mind's eye with ease.


Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer.


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