'Having arrived in Liverpool, I took a ship for the New World . . . 'For hundred of years this sentence has tantalized and inspired Europeans. Jonathan Raban followed in the steps of Hector St John de Crèvecoeur - Mr Heartbreak - and several million other emigrants to discover America and the immigrant experience afresh. From Liverpool docks he sailed to New York and travelled on to Alabama, Seattle and the Florida Keys. Wherever he went there was a new identity to discover, a new life to live . . .'A mordantly funny book that presents itself as a work of reportage but proves to be a work of literature in disguise. It is literary not only in the tightrope acrobatics of its style; its exhilarating verbal inventiveness manages to transform the familiar images and vocabulary of American life into startling novelties' Edward Mendselson, Daily Telegraph'The best book ever written by an Englishman about the United States' Jan Morris, Independent Books of the Year'He is most certainly the finest writer afloat since Conrad, and few landlubbers have equalled either his acuteness or his sense of style' Geoffrey Moorhouse, Guardian
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.
He has secured the use of an apartment, on East 18th Street, between Union Square and Gramercy Park in New York. The concrete cell as he calls it, is half the size of the room he had aboard ship. Naturally, he checks out her bookshelves, before heading out onto the streets to walk where other immigrants first made the tentative steps in making this country their home. The grey cliffs of Manhattan are visible from the apartment and there is a constant low-level rumble of traffic the ebbs and flows throughout the day but never ceases. As he moves around the city, he begins to see that life there can be seen through the prism of the department store, Macy’s in particular. It offered a way of life for some people and a glimpse of something unobtainable for the rest. Taking time to sit on a fire hydrant and observer life as it rushed around him, he began to see that the New York was stratified into two layers; the Street People who are those who are just keeping their heads above water, and the Air people who were whisked to places by lifts, taking them far away from the street.
Having had his fill of this city it was time to hit the road. Taking the I78 and then joining the much larger I80 he headed south, flying past the drivers pootling along at 50. Arriving in Guntersville, Alabama he finds it very much different from New York. Staying in a rented cabin he sets about meeting the residents and has to borrow a dog for personal security by the lake. Realising that this community has very conservative views he keeps a lot of his opinions to himself, knowing that some will take offence to them. It was time to move on again.
This time he was travelling by plane across the country. Not his favourite form of transport, especially when the plane was stuck on the tarmac and not going anywhere any time soon. The contrast with his nerves and a guy nearby who has a basket of popcorn and a book and pays no attention to the announcements. It gives him time to consider the differences between the American’s ease in which they take a plane and the event that flying in Europe is at that time. His destination is to the city where the plane was made, Seattle. It was here that he began to realise that he wanted a city he could mould to his shape, rather than having to fit in with what others did. First, though, he had to find somewhere to live, provided his car he was driving could make it. It was a place that felt American, and yet didn’t fit the other characterises that he came to know for other travels around this country.
It wouldn’t be a Raban book without some sort of boat journey and he heads to the diagonally opposite side of the country on the southern tip of Florida. While he is there he contemplates some of the, shall we say, less legal ways of making money in the region. Talking to the law enforcement people there about it he realises that it is fraught with danger and he would be in the high risk of something nasty happening to him. Chartering the Sea Mist he settles into a gentle cruise off the coast and is even brave enough to put of shorts and reveal his lily-white legs to the sun and probably consternation of the locals…
He writes about America so well, treating the flaws of the people with a warm shrug and embracing the qualities of the places he visits. I am glad too, that I read them in the order of publication, you sense as you travel with his through all his books the warmth that he has, as he meets people and places and experiences the richness of humanity in all its facets. You also sense in this book, his desire to settle somewhere that suits him and it turns out that Seattle was the place that he moved too and where he still lives now. I think that this is my favourite book of his so far of the five that I have read. Highly recommended.