A New York Times Notable Book "In an era of jet tourism, [Jonathan Raban] remains a traveler-adventurer in the tradition of . . . Robert Louis Stevenson." --The New York Times Book Review In 1782 an immigrant with the high-toned name J. Hector St. John de CrÃ¨vecoeur--"Heartbreak" in English--wrote a pioneering account of one European's transformation into an American. Some two hundred years later Jonathan Raban, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, arrived in CrÃ¨vecoeur's wake to see how America has paid off for succeeding generations of newcomers. The result is an exhilarating, often deliciously funny book that is at once a travelogue, a social history, and a love letter to the United States. In the course of Hunting Mr. Heartbreak, Raban passes for homeless in New York and tries to pass for a good ol' boy in Alabama (which entails "renting" an elderly black lab). He sees the Protestant work ethic perfected by Korean immigrants in Seattle--one of whom celebrates her new home as "So big! So green! So wide-wide-wide!"--and repudiated by the lowlife of Key West. And on every page of this peerlessly observant work, Raban makes us experience America with wonder, humor, and an unblinking eye for its contradictions. "Raban delivers himself of some of the most memorable prose ever written about urban America." --Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times "When Raban describes America and Americans, he is unfailingly witty and entertaining." --Salman Rushdie
Many of the passengers must have been carrying precious addresses whose place-names gave away the fundamental unreality of America. Could anyone really live in a town called Fertile? Eureka? Promise City? Eden? Harmony? ... The map of the United States was dotted all over with fantasies and fictions. These ludic names belonged to the landscape of allegory, not real life.
Unfortunately, once Raban arrives in the US, we never really hear any more about the eighteenth-century migrants, and the book turns into much more conventional travel writing - although the theme of migration does recur subtly throughout.
Raban spends two months each in New York, a small Alabama town, Seattle and the Florida Keys. In each place he invents a new personality for himself (John Rayburn in Alabama, Rainbird in Seattle, after mis-hearings of his name). And in each place, his observations have a different focus. For example, the section on New York contrasts the way that it took in a motley group of migrants and turned them into Americans with the late-1980s stratification.
There are many acute observations about the America he sees - but unfortunately, these are mixed in with pot-shots at easy targets and some quite uninspired passages. It's all the more frustrating because you know that he is capable of better. For example, at one point Raban segues from a riff on how bad airline food is (yawn) to a really interesting analysis of the impact of air travel on the way that Americans perceive their own country. My favourite section, apart from the Atlantic crossing, was the description of Seattle, and in particular the way that Raban used the Korean community there to illustrate the way that the American dream plays out in the narratives of immigrant communities.
Sample: Like Tim, the high school students betrayed their anxiety that the world in which they lived was not as real as places where they'd never been. New York was real, California was real; but Guntersville lay beyond the pale of reality as it was laid down by imaginary Hollywood producers and imaginary Manhattan literary agents. ... It seemed to me that the town was very seriously in need of a fiction to give it a keener sense of its own reality.
Recommended for: fans of travel writing, who might be more prepared than me to forgive the less inspired bits.