Thank God for John Rayburn

Mark Ford

  • Hunting Mister Heartbreak by Jonathan Raban
    Harvill, 428 pp, £14.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 00 272031 0

‘Travelling,’ Jonathan Raban once remarked, ‘is inherently a plotless, disordered, chaotic affair, where writing insists on connection, order, plot, signification.’ Even the best contemporary travel writing is haunted by the self-consciousness that grows out of this contradiction. It’s embarrassing to read about seemingly spontaneous encounters with exotic people in far-flung countries, and then suddenly to remember that the whole thing has been set up just so the author can convert it into so much copy for his or her book.

Such moments of embarrassment only rarely occur in the travel writings of Jonathan Raban. He writes so well, with such vividness and authority that one can happily forget the artifice of the genre. In his best books, Old Glory (1981) and Coasting (1986), the business of travelling – in both cases by boat – develops a compulsive logic of its own. Raban’s earnest approach is best summed up by a dictum he quotes from the even more earnest Thoreau: ‘True and sincere travelling is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.’ Raban’s trip down the Mississippi in a 16-foot open boat (recounted in Old Glory), and his circling of the British Isles in an old fishing ketch (Coasting), produced much more than straight travel narratives: their skilful mixture of social criticism, political analysis, self-exploration and traveller’s anecdote suggested ways in which, in the right hands, the hybrid travel book can respond to the different dimensions of contemporary reality more flexibly than more generically pure kinds of writing. Certainly, in comparison with these two, Raban’s only novel, Foreign Land (1985), seems plodding and overdetermined.

The Mississippi in Old Glory and the seas around Britain in Coasting proved for Raban perfect media for both travelling and writing. They laid him at the mercy of the contingent factors inherent in travel by water: tides, weather, irate lock-keepers, reefs, mile-long tow-boats, tasteless modern marinas, wing dams, open-sea sewage pipes and a host of other navigational hazards afforded in these journeys exactly the kind of ‘probation’ on which Thoreau insisted. The mere fact of being afloat and constantly on the move also set Raban at a distance from on-shore culture and the business of ordinary living; the clarity and force of his indictment of British prejudices and institutions in Coasting owed much to his literally free-floating detachment from the nation’s cultural life, allowing him to investigate it with the mordant accuracy of the bemused eavesdropper. Finally, the river and sea provided the resultant books with a satisfyingly simple narrative logic: the incidental adventures and insights all developed naturally out of the central image of a man travelling from A to B (or in Coasting from A to A) in a boat.

Hunting Mister Heartbreak recounts a much bittier, more arbitrary journey, and is closer in method to the random snapshots of Raban’s first travel book, Arabia Through the Looking Glass (1979), The experience of emigrating to America is the thematic hook on which the whole thing is rather perilously forced to hang. It opens at Liverpool docks – corrosively depicted by Raban in all their crumbling bleakness – where Raban bids a wan farewell to his wife, of whom we hear nothing more, and embarks aboard a luxury cargo ship on which he has been offered a complimentary passage. It was from Liverpool that in the 19th century so many thousands of emigrants also set sail for a new life in the New World. The voyage from Europe to America usually features in memoirs and folklore as a heroic, transfiguring process, the crucial rite of passage that initiates the conversion of downtrodden but ambitious Europeans into self-reliant, upstanding Americans. Raban attempts to probe beneath the rhetoric to the actual experience of these emigrants. Robert Louis Stevenson’s caustic characterisations of his fellow passengers in his marvellous The Amateur Emigrant are delightedly and extensively quoted as evidence of the real motivations behind the movement westwards: ‘We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, and all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land were now fleeing pitifully to another ... We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.’ Raban guiltily contrasts Stevenson’s graphic descriptions of the miseries of a steerage passage with his own luxurious quarters and shipboard amenities, which include a heated pool, a squash court, a sauna and a gym. The vast Atlantic Conveyor ploughs calmly through Gale Force 9 seas that would have overwhelmed and sunk Stevenson’s crammed and puny emigrant ship.

E.M. Forster famously remarked of America that it is like life in that ‘you can usually find in it what you look for.’ Settlers from Crèvecoeur – the ‘Mister Heartbreak’ of the title derives from Berryman’s witty Englishing of his name to Aldous Huxley, from William Bradford to W.H. Auden, have discovered in America an unformulated open space hospitably ready to accommodate their private myths of self-realisation. To less determined or less visionary immigrants it offers a wide variety of ready-made life-styles, and it’s in this humbler tradition that Raban sets out to discover himself in America, trying on a series of off-the-peg identities in New York, Alabama, Seattle and the Florida Keys to see which proves the snuggest fit.

New York, Raban’s first stop, scores lowest in almost every respect. He figures it as an unreal inferno, a savage urban jungle schizophrenically divided into desperate ‘Street People’ who haunt the subways and sidewalks, pitiful by day and threatening by night, and indifferent ‘Air People’ who only feel safe when cloistered in protective nests in high-rise apartment blocks, their entrances guarded by a battery of uniformed porters. Raban himself sublets a preciously furnished shoe-box on East 18th Street from a certain conveniently named Alice (whom he has never met), and his time is mainly spent in baffled attempts to decode the nonsensical looking-glass fantasies that motivate the mad city in the dying months of the Reagan era.

He takes the department store Macy’s as his primary evidence of New York’s lunacy. Up until 1974 Macy’s had been a solid value-for-money store: IT’S SMART TO BE THRIFTY, read the motto over its entrance. But during the boom of the later Seventies and Eighties it traded up and up; its spiralling prices succeeded in driving away the bargain-hunting ‘moderates’, as they are derisively called by Macy’s management, and in attracting wealthier, stupider customers who will happily pay $90 for an ordinary white shirt as long as it is displayed amid enough faded symbols of the British aristocracy – shooting sticks, antlers, shotgun cartridges, battered cane furniture evocative of the Raj ... Raban is particularly good at exposing the absurd and ghastly landed-gentry pastoral that fuelled the massive success of Ralph Lauren in the Eighties, and ponders interestingly the bizarre processes by which the polo-playing, grouse-shooting lords who once symbolised all that was wrong with Europe have somehow been converted into instantly recognisable emblems of American success.

There is, though, something rather prudish and reductive in Raban’s outrage at the follies and iniquities of contemporary New York. The so-called ‘friends’ whose life-styles he mercilessly analyses as representing the Air People’s pettiness and blindness hardly function as adequate samples of the city’s teeming, multifarious communities. If everything is so awful in New York, why do so many people pour into the city from other parts of America each year? Raban’s perceptions are certainly trenchant, and often startling, but the chapter seems to owe rather too much to previous literary visions of Eighties New York – particularly Martin Amis’s Money and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – to be really convincing.

The commonsensical Raban slips far more easily into the complacencies of the sleepy Alabama town of Guntersville, to whose population of 6491 he seriously thinks of making a permanent addition. While the dazed inhabitants of New York mindlessly pursue an illusionary pastoral confected by canny advertising moguls, the unruly deep Southern wilderness offers its settlers more promising materials with which to fulfil their Arcadian dreams. Raban is by no means blind to the religious intolerance, the racism, the sheer mind-numbing boredom of small-town America – in one particularly well-told vignette he stops for lunch at a town called Rural Retreat, West Virginia, and is amazed when his fellow diners rise as one to watch the passing of the daily freight train – but in general John Rayburn, as he is called by his Southern pals, finds the easygoing amiability of Guntersville’s close-knit community beguilingly comfortable.

Rayburn is in search of the Agrarian ideal as formulated by Allen Tate and friends in the early Thirties. Guntersville life is assessed by the yardstick of Tate’s stirring pronouncement that ‘only a return to the provinces, to the small self-contained centres of life, will lay the all-destroying abstraction America to rest.’ The fact that most of the town’s inhabitants commute to jobs in the armaments industry located in nearby Huntsville rather undermines the initial impression Guntersville makes as a rurally self-contained backwater; the ultimate sources of its prosperity are MAD and Reagan’s crazed SDI programme. Here the end of the Cold War will have been greeted with dismay and fear, and Saddam Hussein’s aggression welcomed with relief. One can’t see Allen Tate awarding too many Agrarian brownie points for this aspect of the town’s economy.

Raban’s New York Air People rarely encounter violence first hand, but are inundated by reports and images of exceptional savagery on their evening news bulletins: accordingly, they plan their occasional ventures down and out into the city as precisely as commando raids. From the porch of his rented cinderblock cabin in Polecat Hollow on the outskirts of Guntersville, Rayburn finds himself confronting a set of different, though still quintessentially American dangers: ‘Sitting in the rocker I could see a vulture quartering the sky, the snapping turtles on the dead tree, a very large poisoned ant like a collapsing Degas dancer. I had been warned that water-moccasins swam in my dock. I was landlord to a number of brown recluses, and probably fire ants as well. I had heard a serpentine slithering in the fallen leaves beyond the bedroom window, and could reckon on meeting the odd rattlesnake, copperhead and diamondback.’ Additional threats include poison oak, poison ivy, black widow spiders, bears and cougars. ‘There was more savagery lurking in my plot,’ Rayburn remarks, ‘than there was in the whole of Europe put together.’ In the frontier spirit he equips himself with a black labrador, ant poison, fishing-rods, and even toys with the idea of buying a gun. But the real threat to a contented existence as John Rayburn in Guntersville lies, not in its seething wildlife, but in its claustrophobic neighbourliness. Its religious communities in particular exercise an appalling hegemony over the town’s cultural life. Rayburn gamely attends the First Baptist Church, and its adjunctive social events: these include Baptist yard-sales, Baptist volleyball tournaments and Baptist cook-outs, at which grace, delivered by the senior man present, sometimes lasts a long, long time: ‘O Lord, we want to thank you for this wonderful weather we’ve been having ... temperature up in the nineties and looks like staying that way ... for the good cooking of Shirleen here and Mary Belle ... for bringing into our lives our guest this day, John Rayburn ...’

Drizzly, foggy Seattle, Raban’s next stop, offers him a less explicitly determined identity, and he soon finds a comfortable niche for himself in this ‘extraordinarily soft and pliant city’. The people are mild, the weather is mild, the scenery is mild. ‘Rainbird’, the rather coy alias he adopts for himself here, slots easily into the city’s temperate life-style, as do over a hundred other immigrants each day: for Seattle proved one of America’s most spectacular boomtowns in the Eighties, and its success has attracted a vast influx of settlers, both from other parts of America and from the Far East, in particular Korea.

Much of his stay is spent investigating the classic immigrant dilemma as experienced by the huge and thriving Korean community. Raban is fascinated by the clash between their workaholic, patriarchal, austerely Christian culture and the destabilising temptations of secular America. Of all America’s recent immigrants, it is the Koreans who seem to be closest to the tradition of the Pilgrim Fathers, arriving with the fiercest determination to build within the wilderness their own exclusive, self-righteous City on a Hill. They happily work 18-hour days, shunning the delights of American consumerism so as to save up enough to start their own businesses. The problems start with their American-horn children, who are torn between antagonistic cultures, and put under immense parental pressure to he, as a favourite Korean joke has it, brain surgeons by day and concert pianists by night. Nor are these xenophobic traditionalist parents exactly keen on the American ideal of the Melting Pot, or even of the more recently trumpeted Tossed Salad. Raban asks a certain Jay Park how he would take to the idea of a white American son-in-law. ‘I deal with that one awready,’ he gleefully replies: ‘I tell her, “Day you bring home American boyfriend, that’s the day you dead meat, girl.” ’

Raban’s encounters with these dogmatic, proud, fiercely-motivated Koreans make fascinating reading, and constitute the book’s only really original contribution to the literature of immigration. Indeed, he finds their experiences so compelling that he plans a conflict-of-generations novel set in the Seattle Korean community, on which, presumably, he is at work now. Hunting Mister Heartbreak was, a coda records, itself half-written in Seattle, so, though he is not explicit about this, it seems Raban has in fact settled down there. Certainly he leaves Seattle regretfully, muttering, as he prepares to slog off down to Florida, about needing another location with which to round off this current project. At this moment one’s sense of the artificiality and scrappiness of his whole journey’s – and book’s – trajectory is uncomfortably acute. Why does he need another location? Why Florida? Why not Texas or Iowa? Down on the Keys he struggles to imagine himself into the role of a dare-devil drug smuggler, running cocaine in from Cuba by night boat, hiding out by day in the coastline’s labyrinthine mangrove swamps. This fantasy in particular feels wilfully worked up for the sake of copy. Raban’s prose itself seems to wilt in the enervating tropical languor.

By far the best passage in the Florida chapter describes a visit to the main Key West graveyard, where the dead are housed above ground in whitewashed stone cottages: their coffin-sized apartments are adorned with life-size plaster-of-paris sculptures of their occupants, one of which touchingly sports a real pair of lace-up canvas boots. Raban is puzzled by the epitaph of a certain B.P. Roberts which simply runs: ‘I told you I was sick.’ Was B.P. Roberts a psychopath glorying in his misdeeds, or a meek, browbeaten man voicing at last but too late his complaints from beyond the grave’? Raban delights in parsing the line’s richly ‘Empsonian ambiguity’: ‘In one resounding chord, it struck notes of triumph, pathos, accusation, self-pity, and high humour.’ Though he revolves it every which way, he gets no nearer the dead man’s original motivation. And this elusiveness seems typical of much of Raban’s America in Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Unmanageable, contradictory, endlessly diverse, it consistently frustrates his attempts to establish a coherent angle on its multiple realities. Raban is so fascinated by this necropolis that he ends up negotiating to buy a ‘unit’ in anticipation of his own decease. Life in contemporary America may be resolutely unquantifiable, but it’s always possible to put a price on death: ‘It’ll cost you,’ the cemeteries manager tells him, ‘$825 clear.’