ONE TROUBLE A travel writer eventually confronts is that his reader is sedentary or at leisure, with the lamplight just so, the tea just so -- and whatever harrowing, high-seas adventure the author has to relate will, in its second life on the printed page, hardly compare to the original journey as a difficult or demanding experience. The locale may be exotic, the natives friendly or not; lives might even be imperiled; but once the writing's done, the manuscript proofed, the pages printed and bound, the thing is shipped as a book and its trials are literary -- or not. Melville knew this. The man famous for having lived among the cannibals and writing entertainments for the feminized literary tastes of his time finally wrote a story where the real adventure was the act of reading. He understood who'd buy his book: "all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster -- tied to counters, nailed to benches, cinched to desks." In response he wrote a long seafaring story that was hard to get through, and died, as everyone now knows, in obscurity.

Jonathan Raban's new book, Passage to Juneau, makes some of the same queer, crabby, highfalutin demands as Moby Dick, and I, for one, loved it.

It's a risky, somewhat incondite book with a sad, brooding center. Raban is a book-length dweller, an obsessive repeater, fascinated by pattern and variation -- you can pick a passage at random and come to a sense of his mind working: "What one sees at first, from a distance, is a single catastrophic vortex... as one steps closer, the vortex resolves into a nest of multiplying vortices with, at their center, not so much a ship as bits of a ship... before these bits cease to cohere, and the dismembered ship dissolves into the liquescent swirl...." And so on and so on. This book hovers around vortices, it whirls and eddies, circling the matter of boats, sailing, salmon, history, exploration, religion, marriage, fatherhood, books, language, aesthetics, economics, etc.

Plot is a crude organ in a book, and it's cruder still in a book review, but here goes: Raban leaves his wife and daughter; he sails north along the inside passage; he interweaves the parallel story of Vancouver's exploration throughout; his father dies; he returns to England; he comes back; he continues the trip; his wife and daughter join him in Juneau; his wife asks for a divorce; he sails home.

Buy it! Read it!

The book's deepest center is language, and that's where you find Raban fighting hardest for control and cohesion. The book is generously full of other books, and half the joy of the story, for me, was watching the spectacle of a real-life, grown-up, non-Oprahfied man who actually reads in order to make sense of the world. Aboard ship, back in his study, he comes up with a long list of arcane nautical books, but there's also W. H. Auden, Alice Munro, Evelyn Waugh, Conrad, Dana, Edmund Burke, P. Shelley, W. Wordsworth, Richard Holmes, etc.; plus the anthropologists, ethnographers, the various journals kept by Captain Vancouver and his crew, and finally, floating through it all, Raban's own literate, exact words, so that his position in his story is akin to the sub-sub-librarian in Moby Dick -- "a painstaking burrower" who has "gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth" to find his meaning.

At first it puzzled me why Raban dwells so much on the high Romantic poets when he himself is a classical writer; aloof, a touch cold -- distant in order to maintain, not so much objectivity, but personal and social balance. He's not gonzo, for sure, and he's not self-stuck like De Quincey or familiar like Hazlitt either, but rather a writer whose strict and disciplined sentences share a certain temper with Samuel Johnson's prose -- another writer with a gut fear of chaos and a writing style, the very symmetry of which allowed him to look over the edge without going in.

Raban's like that: not dull, not at all, but ordered and precise, alert, wary of inexact words and of sentences that don't properly name the world. In a situation that's analogous to the writing of sentences -- one that comes up several times in the book -- he's fascinated when his depth finder can't sound the bottom, and pointlessly reports its own murky confusion in a chaos of false readings.

The connection he feels for the Romantics, then, is oblique and complicated. He makes a case for the literary idea of the sublime as a guiding sensibility, when really the language for the American landscape didn't come from Edmund Burke -- at least not first, most deeply -- but from sacred history, from the rhetorical traditions of the church and Biblical sources. What's brilliant and fascinating is that Raban, in following the path and tracing out the history of Captain Vancouver, uncovers the waning vestiges of an allegorical mind, largely vanished from the contemporary literature of the time but alive in the demotic soul circa 1792 -- and today is deposited in place names up and down the coast. This outlook survived in Captain Van, as Raban calls him, who was a little sluggard and unhip in his tastes, out of sync with his time. Raban puzzles over this anomaly in several passages, maddened by some elusive parallel: "A feature of the American West, at sea as on land, was that much of it had been named at a period when Pilgrim's Progress, in the umpteenth small-print edition, was on every family's short bookshelf... there was a Bunyanesque ring to many of Captain Van's names, like Desolation Sound and Deception Pass. The settlers had continued that tradition, signposting the sea with names of moral and emotional states."

And of course Passage is a book about a man in search of words, new and old, to describe moral and emotional states that now exist mainly as residue, having no real weight. This is why the ballast of the book is other books, language, stories, fresh ways of saying and seeing, expressing.

He made the trip once, at sea, over water, and had to make it again -- in writing, over language. There's a beautiful, compelling sort of hollowness in this book, a resonant emptiness I can't quite figure out. It's full of echoes and fogs and ghosts. By most standards Raban's a bigtime success, so it's no surprise this is such a spooky piece of work. Graham Greene has written "that for a writer as much as for a priest there is no such thing as success," and Raban, whose father was in the Anglo-Catholic clergy, wrestles with both his own and his father's doubt, sensing neither will be put to rest -- by acclaim, money, long life, etc. With only days to live, Peter Raban tells his son that dying is "more of a question of what kind of act you put on." And he adds, "It... doesn't... take... bravery," while the son is careful to note how the words are laid out evenly "between us, one by one."

Afterward, of course, the living continue to doubt: "I did not know what he believed -- or didn't believe -- when he was dying, or what death meant to him then. I was reasonably certain that he didn't view it as a gateway to a bright hereafter. In forty years in the priesthood, most of his time had been spent trying to give consolation to other people; but I doubted if he had found much left in his religion with which to console himself."

Raban is thus tempted by the sublime as a way of gaining access to new states of feeling, some release or hope beyond the quandary of his doubt, some sense of the terror below his classical temperament. He quotes Burke approvingly: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger... is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." While the sublime makes its appeal to Raban as writer, it is aesthetically a relationship between individuals and objects -- not people. It lacks a social dimension and is even hostile to it, so that in his other roles as a father, husband, and son, he's got to recoil from it, just a little. The word sublime is derived from Latin and means -- literally -- on high, lofty, elevated; but Raban is drawn to the depths, haunted by what lies below, on the bottom. "Like a bug planting its feet on the skin of the water," he writes, "the boat was precariously aloft above a drowned rift valley." In Burke's essay, the idea of the sublime is treated in part as an instinct for self-preservation, a response to terror that "anticipates our reasonings" -- a lower-down sense Raban is guided by, if unconsciously, as he sails north.

In the end Raban sails home in a boat whose name he's embarrassed to repeat -- christened by the previous owner, it's too literary for his tastes -- and reads William Cowper and Marcus Aurelius, a proto-Romantic and a Stoic. Here are the salient concluding lines in Cowper:

"We perish'd, each alone;

But I, beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he."

Tonic to this sense of the unfathomable is the stoic, in a book Peter Raban had been reading before his death: "In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion."

The father perishes and the son, alone, takes up the doubt, turning to the father's stoicism -- not for answers, but succor. In our Western tradition, Stoicism has always presented a compelling alternative to the Christian view of death; but it also goes against the temper of our time, the somewhat romantic and psychological idea that everything must be expressed, that what remains unsaid hurts you. The Stoics didn't believe that, and neither does Raban, who's written a great, challenging book, in the best words he could find, about oblivion.