Driving Home: An American Scrapbook
I liked Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau. It is a reflective account of his sailboat expedition from Seattle to Alaska, and showcases Raban at his best. He reads widely, observes closely, thinks things through — qualities that every writer aspires for.
Yet, while reading his new collection of essays, Driving Home, I was astonished to find myself getting irritated by those same qualities. I think it may be because they work for one essay, one book or a theme. In this set of essays, Raban covers ground that ranges from Seattle to poet Philip Larkin, Mississippi floods to 9/11. These are “readings”, he says, and he has not “tried to corral them under thematic headings”. Therefore the cord that links them is his reading, thoughts and observations. Substantial, you might think, but over 600 pages it gets tenuous.Raban writes on such a variety of subjects that a collection like this must reflect some serious attempt to organise, or it begins to sink under its own distributed weight. Take this observation, for example: Seattle "is the first big city to which people had fled in order to be closer to nature". A fascinating thought, sure. But with "fled" being replaced first by "swarmed" and then "flocked", it appears three times by the middle of the book. It is a hard job to iron out duplications from over 50 essays written in more than two decades. But surely such an original thought must not be slaughtered by repetition?
In fact, Raban examines and analyses Seattle in multiple ways. We hear about its “anxious liberals in REI outdoor gear” as well as its “tug captains [who] talked in gruff laconic ”, a spectacular public library as well as the clothes the homeless wear. He tells us that the city has “bought itself all the essential ingredients of metropolitan life — restaurants, theatres, universities, major-league sports teams, a first-rate symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, a famous rock-music scene.”
I’m thinking, why no mention of public transport? At least for me, that defines an urban area. But then Raban pronounces on the matter: “What’s wrong with Seattle is that it has no real consciousness of its own urbanity.” Exactly what does that mean? It seems an apparently profound thing to say — until you think about it and get nowhere fast.
Individually, there are some gems here. Raban’s profile of Donald Crowhurst, who vanished in the Atlantic in 1969 while trying to sail around the world, is a fine example of the art of using words to reconstruct flesh and blood: I finished the ten pages feeling an almost tangible link to Crowhurst and itching to read more about him. His essay ‘Mississippi Water’, about the floods on that river, is the kind of writing I admire and aspire to do. It is filled with acute observation, characters quirky in their very normal-ness, signs and situations that put meat on the barebones story of a great calamity.
But even if you string together gems, it’s not necessary that you get an alluring necklace (and these are not all gems anyway). These essays really should have remained the stand-alone pieces they were first written as.
Make no mistake, I still like Raban. His descriptions, his world view, his thoroughness: again, these are all models any writer would do well to emulate. But from here on out, I’ll pick up his longer books on specific subjects — like Passage to Juneau — rather than a hodgepodge like this that goes nowhere at speed.
Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist