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One of Raban's best - acute, wistful and sometimes ruthless.
on 23 November 2000
Few writers have quite such an unerring eye for the idea of America as Jonathan Raban, and his best books have been about this topic. In this, he pursues his childhood fascination with the Mississippi, the river of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, by chartering a small boat to sail the entire navigable length of the river: all the way from Minneapolis down to the Delta and New Orleans. This is a formidable task, and the words of one person at the outset - "You gotta respect the Mississippi or she'll do you in" - recur as Raban discovers the unpredictability, moodswings, and deceptiveness of the genuine river.
Along the way, as the river alternately bewitches, intrigues and frightens him, he makes numerous stops and meets a great many ordinary Americans. Raban seems to have a remarkable knack for drawing deep-rooted beliefs out of those he encounters on the journey, and his great gift here is for recreating these people on the page, as real as if you'd met them yourself. The book was first written in 1980, and the sense of wounded pride in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, the seizure of the US Embassy in revolutionary Iran, and the others disasters of the 1970s, is a constant theme throughout the book. Raban catalogues the idea of America in the minds of its citizens and its often bitter clash with reality, in much the same way as he contrasts the reality of the Mississippi with the romantic idea in his head. He travels through cities, small towns and tiny burgs, finds time for a short and sad love affair in St Louis, and in one of the highlights of the entire book watches a fascinating mayoral election in racially-divided Memphis.
This is one of Raban's best, even if his acute eye sometimes observes people in the same dispassionate way that a scientist looks at microbes through a microscope. The old adage that "America's fate is not to have an ideology but to be one" has rarely had a better exponent.