Reviews of Driving Home, Jonathan Raban's newest collection of essays, tend to mention, slightingly, that Raban relocates from his native England to Seattle so very many times over the course of these 493 pages. This is true. The seafaring Englishman—a Stranger Genius Award winner—returns nearly ad nauseam to the coming-to-Seattle narrative in essays published from the 1990s up to 2010 in various, usually American, magazines, turning the freshness of gimlet-eyed discovery into something akin to the glinting repetition of a Xerox machine flashing. We react to it on aesthetic terms. Yet there's meaning in this method of storytelling for the subject of "discovery." It points to the curious fact that discovery in the American West never seems to go anywhere—as if that were part of the setup, as if it were a narrative always bumping up against the incoming waves of the Pacific.
Because in reading Raban, even having lived here for a decade, I become sweatingly aware of all I don't know. How gimlet-eyed I have not been. "John Webber was the first white artist to unpack his paint box in the Pacific Northwest," Raban writes in the essay "Battleground of the Eye," published in the Atlantic Monthly in March 2001. Who the hell is John Webber? "Battleground of the Eye" is a piece about the history of picturing this land (read: turning it from land to landscape) that ought to be required reading for artists, environmentalists, and anyone who has ever set foot inside a museum in Seattle or ever will. Or look: Everyone in Seattle—with its contested forest and water sailed on and gazed upon but not swum in—should read this book, and not just once.
As in Antonioni's film Blow-Up, Raban returns to the scene of his own discovery in order to look for what he's missed. He not only gives information, he models the getting of it, the continual turning toward a subject. He's an investigator without any of the dumb righteous egotism you see in contemporary journalism, where reporters seem to propose that investigating something is an act of magic—reinforcing the ahistorical malaise that made it seem so magic in the first place. And his style! It's a knife. Sharp and curving. Shaped equally for pleasure and delivery. He'll as soon tell you how a wave works or recall the last case of cannibalism tried in Britain as narrate, with a literary bent, the cultural, economic, and historical harpooning of the town of Neah Bay by tourists and press while the Makah hunted their ceremonial whale in 2000. Whether you're a novelist or poet or adman or architect or bumper-sticker writer, you don't want him for a critic.
Or maybe you do, because there's nothing mean about his project; it is ultimately social. He writes as a literal traveler, but also discriminates between escapist travel and a connective kind. When he's at home, he's a grouch who can barely motivate himself to talk to the mailman, but he's all curious amiability on the road or water (tellingly, he navigates near shore and docks regularly rather than taking romantic marathon sails in unfathomable depths).
"The ocean itself is a wilderness," he writes in "Seagoing" (Outside, September 1996), "beyond the reach of the morality and customs of the land. But a boat is like an embassy in a foreign country. So long as you are aboard one, you remain a social creature, a citizen, answerable to the conventions of society. You might as well sally forth alone across the trackless ocean in a clapboard cottage with a white picket fence and a mailbox." His way of wandering the terrain is not to make it more his, but more ours.