Last Saturday, the Frye Art Museum's Genius-related Literary Festival featured Jonathan Raban, a writer/British expat who rarely leaves his home on Queen Anne Hill. He read from his masterpiece Bad Land: An American Romance. He held the room in a spell as he described, among other things, the old ruins of a home in Montana.
During the event's question time, editor and writer Christopher Frizzelle requested that Raban reveal his opinion of the current presidential race. Raban, who is not only a great stylist but also a great commentator of American politics, said that he was really worried about Donald Trump. The clown has to be taken seriously. He is a real danger. The politically crazy things that come out of his mouth (such as mocking John McCain's military record) are not crippling his campaign. He is the Republican front-runner. He could end up in the White House, and that would be a catastrophe for us all.
Though Raban's opinion might have sounded a bit alarmist to many of the attendees, it is actually consistent with the existential dimension of his work. For Raban, there is no such thing as a safe distance or a sure bet. Something terrible can happen to us at any moment. This is the human condition. We should never trust the good times. Never feel smug or secure.
For example, in Passage to Juneau (a remarkable work that was reviewed in this paper by another remarkable Northwest writer, Charles D'Ambrosio), Raban describes the Puget Sound as a body of water that has an "innocent surface" because it is sheltered ("[it's] never wider than four miles") and is rarely disturbed by gales. But this "tame-seeming... sea is full of menace." There are "dreadful, capricious creatures... that haunt its lower depths." He then describes the experience he had of a killer whale breaching not far from his boat. It had the sudden "violence of a car bomb going off in a quiet city street."
Really bad things do happen. Trump could happen. He is one of the capricious creatures that can breach and explosively disrupt the calm surface of American life.
This Saturday, Matt Briggs, Gary Groth, and John Olson read at the Frye's Literary Festival.