Jonathan Raban likes driving. He drives a sports car, low and silver, a two-seater, a convertible, with a compass glued to the dash that always indicates west or slightly north of west. ("It's never worked, and I hate it.") I express surprise at the car and he asks me not to make a big deal out of it. He's wearing a jacket, a thin scarf, and the baseball cap he wears in his author photos. We get onto the freeway. I float a question about something or other. He eyes my notebook and says, "Oh no, this is not an interview, is it?" He's used to being in charge of the narrative. It's a Sunday morning. We're on the 520 bridge, water on both sides. A sentence from the beginning of his 1996 book Bad Land comes to mind: "...the car was like a boat at sea." When the car in front of us switches lanes, Raban guns it.
We have a long way to go. We're headed to North Bend to have lunch. We're doing research. In November, Raban is giving a lecture at the University of Oxford under the daunting title "U.S. National Identity in the 21st Century." The honorarium is modest, but the university is flying him over in business class, which means that his seat will fold back into a bed. For all his reputation as an adventurer—driving across America, sailing to Alaska—he says he's "not a traveler." When I balk, he says, "Most enterprising Americans with cheap miles on their cars would beat me hands down. It's just that all the travels I've done I've written about."
The landscape around us is changing rapidly from urban to rural. The difference has captured Raban's imagination, and it will be the subject of his lecture—"blue" and "red" America within a single county. He's been reading books by Ann Coulter and Al Franken. He delights in their "theatrical grievance" and millenarian tone. "You need the world of religion to explain Coulter on one side and Franken on the other, because they are like faiths." As for the writers themselves, he says, "I think their readerships are more interesting than they are."
Today's research project: counting the number of signs along the road for Democrat Darcy Burner, who's running against Republican incumbent Dave Reichert to represent this district in the coming congressional elections. Burner has a fighting chance. The other day, Raban talked to Burner on the phone about King County Executive Ron Sims, environmental regulations, the countervailing ambitions of rural landowners—wonky stuff—and finally got her to open up on the unlikely topic of county policies regarding septic tanks. This thrilled him. So does her name. "'Darcy Burner' is just so wonderful. You can't separate it from Jane Austen." Surprisingly, in the course of a long drive, there are almost no signs for either congressional candidate. "I think the person who is really winning the election," Raban deadpans, "is someone called Coldwell Banker."
In North Bend, he chooses a bar and grill along the main road. We watch a woman walking through the parking lot wearing a camo purse. "I like awful situations where I feel out of place and horrible," I say, to support his decision. "I do too," Raban says.
Raban has made a career of feeling awkward. He's curious, funniest when he's miserable, and quick to put himself in uncomfortable situations, to be at a loss, to see what happens. "I'm not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I'm at sea," he writes in 1999's Passage to Juneau, almost all of which takes place at sea. In 1991's Hunting Mister Heartbreak, he travels from England to New York City the old-fashioned way, by ship—the ship is a "giant Italian breadstick" crashing through an ocean storm—and, as an experiment, spends some time at the corner of East 22nd Street and Broadway sitting on a fire hydrant. He wonders if passersby will assume he's homeless. Sure enough. People walking past (all with "the same boiled look on their faces") refuse to make eye contact. "I'd never felt the force of such frank contempt—and all because I was sitting on a fire hydrant."
One of his rare gifts is the ability to write about kooks and stupid people—his adventures are full of kooks and stupid people—without contempt. Even when it comes to the Bush administration, he is rational to the end. My Holy War, a collection of essays published last year, is a persuasive, electrifying dissection of, among other topics, American politics since 9/11, the history of the Middle East, the culture of surveillance, the mythologies of the American West, the mess in Iraq, and "why the call to jihad answers so resonantly the yearnings of clever, unhappy, well-heeled young men." On this last point, Raban writes brilliantly on the uncomfortable similarities between the fervor of his adolescent atheism and the religiosity of John Walker and the young members of the Taliban.
"I almost like the fact that I can't vote in this country," he tells me. His foreign status—he's English—enables him to retain a measure of coolness, which makes the essays more effective, more convincing, definitive. Then he thinks of his American daughter and confesses, "On Julia's behalf, I sometimes explode with rage."
After lunch, we drive to Duvall. Still no signs for Burner or Reichert. "That's the problem reading the New York Times and the Washington Post," he says. "You begin to think that you and everyone else are obsessed with the midterm elections. And then you drive out to the Snoqualmie Valley and you begin to suspect that no one out here's even heard of the midterm elections." It's just one more dislocation for him, one more example of not fitting in: his métier. It has produced 11 nonfiction books and three novels, including the forthcoming Surveillance. "The last 16 years"—his whole life in Seattle—"I feel like I've been on a trip. This part of the world doesn't look remotely like home."