I first met Jonathan Raban eight years ago, after I saw him read a story about the twilight years of the poet and jazz critic Phillip Larkin at the Blue Moon Tavern. Not only was his story and style superb, but he was able to make a bar full of professional alcoholics and loyal pool players stop, listen, and enjoy a light tale about the late Phillip Larkin -- no small feat, you will agree. Since then I have read most of Raban's books, heard him speak in public on several occasions, and even talked with him in person, and what has impressed me most about him is his commitment to literature: It is complete, without cracks, gaps, or lapses into doubt. He writes to live -- and vice versa. Such a commitment, mad in its intensity, would have been intolerable had he been a bad writer; But as he is not. He is the most important writer living in the Northwest today.
I make this grand claim for several reasons, the main reason being that with the publication of each new Raban book, a whole layer (socially and geographically) of the Northwest is transformed into literature. This is significant because it means there is now something for young writers in our young city to refer to, to diverge from, to measure against, to love. Raban is now a permanent part of the region's literary imagination; he has invented the Northwest, or more closely, has shown us the ways that it can be invented.
His new book, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings -- which I have not read and only know about from what he has told me -- covers the "Alaska Inside Passage," that strange and neglected space between Juneau and Seattle which was explored in the 18th century by George Vancouver. At his home last fall Raban showed me on a map (one of his obsessions) the routes he explored in his own boat, visiting this and that island, reading books between the empty distances of America's last wilderness. Judging from our conversation that day, I suspect Passage to Juneau will be his most philosophical and spiritual book yet, charged as it is by both very personal concerns and by a larger historical project that, as with his work Bad Land, involves Europe's early encounters with this new world.
When I met Raban recently, he told me that the book was finished and he was now working on a novel (he has only written one so far, Foreign Land) which is set in Seattle. For anyone who has read the dazzling penultimate chapter of Hunting Mister Heartbreak -- which proposed what his Seattle novel, if he were to write one, would look like -- this is very good news indeed. This "bookish city by the sea" should be the next layer he transforms into a work of art.