Originally published Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Book review

'Driving Home': Jonathan Raban all over the map

Jonathan Raban's "Driving Home: An American Journey" collects more than 40 essays by Raban, an incomparable travel writer, novelist and essayist.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Driving Home: An American Journey'

by Jonathan Raban

Pantheon, 512 pp., $30

The "home" in the title piece of Jonathan Raban's latest book, a sterling collection of more than 40 essays written and published over the past two decades, happens to be Seattle.

Raban is an incomparable travel writer, author of more than a dozen books and numerous essays, and he's made a recent reputation as an interpreter of the Pacific Northwest to British and national (U.S.) audiences in the Guardian, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and other publications. Raban has an ideal outsider-insider perspective for this as an expatriate from London, and as father to daughter Julia, who was born and raised in Seattle.

In this book, Raban supplies myriad observations about his adopted home, but also on the larger American landscape, riffing on the West, urban architecture, national political trends ("At the Tea Party" is the final essay in the book), the dot-com economy, and most sublimely, about nature. Raban's writing about water, in particular, is without peer. On a trip down the Mississippi during a 1993 flood, he writes: "The surface of the river was a lacework of rips and swirls: oily mushroom heads, a hundred feet or so across, bloomed and spun; little whirlpools raced away on private zigzag tracks; everywhere the water was dividing, folding in on itself, spilling, breaking, spitting, and sucking." (In a previous book, "Passage to Juneau," his accounts of the confounding depths, tides and currents of Puget Sound from a solo sailor's point of view are a true wonder.)

"Driving Home" (first published in the Independent) is his best piece, a long and satisfying essay revealing the Pacific Northwest landscape and history through the eyes of explorers George Vancouver and Lewis and Clark, and writers Theodore Roethke, Bernard Malamud and Richard Hugo. The remainder of the essays display Raban's versatility and eclectic interests, from rather highbrow reviews of art and poetry to inspired reportage, like his take on the Makah whale hunt near Neah Bay, Washington, in 2000, and a pitch-perfect essay called "Homesteading" about the settlement patterns of the American West. Transcending the "travel writer" label, Raban acquaints himself intimately with people and settings, uncovering their histories and unique personalities.

The multiple renderings of Seattle were never meant to be clumped all together in a single volume and reading them one after the other can sometimes expose his tendency to paint in broad brush strokes — showing little appreciation for the city's vibrant neighborhoods for instance — but he struggles ardently and admirably against his own ignorance as a writer and as a foreigner, giving his observations an uncanny ring of truth.

And to know how the outside world views us is what Seattleites crave, isn't it? Here's Raban's searing outlook: "Our nature-fixatedness has turned Seattle into a place where nobody dresses up for anything short of a wedding or a funeral, where dinner parties, arranged weeks beforehand, end on the stroke of ten, where the vital hum and buzz of city living are generally regarded as the regrettable price to be paid for the pleasure of being able to escape into the countryside. As a result, Seattle's social fabric is depressingly threadbare, existing as it does in pockets of underground resistance to the city's prevailing tone."

Only an outsider, who is also a resident, could drive this home with such affectionate exasperation.

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