Hugging the Shoreline

Safety at sea, peril on land.

LEAVING BAD LAND for purportedly good water, English expat writer Jonathan Raban forsakes his Queen Anne home for the unpredictable currents of the Inland Passage. He begins his story in 1996, as the final proofs for Bad Land are being prepared, and narrates it from his perspective after the book's well-deserved success (and National Book Critics Circle Award). In that book, American frontier myths and railroad industry propaganda were perfect subjects for his lucid outsider's eye. PASSAGE TO JUNEAU: A Sea and Its Meanings

by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon Books, $26.50) So Raban's latest historical meditation, which follows Capt. George Vancouver's 1792-93, 865-mile surveying expedition of Puget Sound and the Inland Passage to Alaska, was eagerly awaited. What readers could not have anticipated, however, are the alternating episodes from Raban's midlife crisis. Not to be unsympathetic to the man's two heartrending losses, but this material is the book's greatest weakness. The well-written, moving descriptions of his English family upbringing should've been confined to—and expanded in—a memoir. And the pages chronicling a marriage on the shoals should've been reserved for the therapist's couch. Far better are those sections dealing with historical fact and Raban's astute latter-day commentary and digression. He brings formidable research and writerly technique to his ruminations on Vancouver's odyssey, Northwest Coast Indians, and the land and sea comprising the Inland Passage. For him, the fat, bald, manic "Captain Van" marks the passing of the 17th-century Age of Reason into the Romantic era. Vancouver's near-continual hatred of our dark, rainy coast led him to bestow place names like Desolation Sound, while younger crew "were on separate journeys" through the same waters. "They were excited by the modern rage for wilderness and solitude, by landscapes that inspired feelings of awe, dread, or, in Edmund Burke's phrase, 'delightful horror,'" Raban writes. "Such ideas were anathema to Captain Van, who saw in them the seeds of insurrection and chaos." Poor Vancouver is the stodgy old rationalist, an anachronism. Yet, Raban writes, "I felt a growing kinship with the man." Viewing the same sights Romantics would deem sublime, he sees only the "logjam of dead literary clich颻 Raban finds himself "an agnostic in their church," dismissing the scenery as "soothing, therapeutic wallpaper for cruise-ship passengers." HIS CONDESCENSION comes easy, too easy. Other fish in Raban's barrel include yuppie vacation home owners, tourists, Canada (which seems "out of focus"), that cheesy KCTS oil-painting show with Bob Ross, rival authors (particularly Dava Sobel and Longitude), world-traveling hippie drop-outs, and anyone whose boat he deems insufficiently authentic and weather-beaten. Of course, cynicism and snide invective are any good writer's stock-in-trade, but Raban hardly breaks new ground with such "debunking." His informed opinions on Indian culture and art are much more interesting, but—again—not so novel. Arguing against "the sentimental myth of Indians living in a state of idealized harmony with nature," he finds in their debowdlerized stories a "justified terror" of an environment "generally ill-disposed to humankind." Is this supposed to be news to us? He locates the characteristic "lozenge" or "ovoid"-like design units of Indian art in the turbulent wake of canoe oars, hypothesizing that when Indians "combined them in a design, they made them do exactly what capillary waves do—reflect the world in smithereens." Such turbulence inspires Raban's greatest fascination and most accomplished writing. He compares the furious waters of Deception Pass to a lava lamp, elsewhere praising a Turner seascape's "single catastrophic vortex" in which "the dismembered ship dissolves into the liquescent swirl." From this natural phenomenon, represented by the undersea demon Komogwa in coastal Indian lore, he concludes: "This is how the world is. We live with chaos as the encompassing condition of our lives. We learn to work through it. With luck, we emerge from it" (his italics). Although Passage to Juneau doesn't ultimately make sense of this chaos, we want such a talented writer to emerge from the turmoil affecting his own complacent life. When told how water flows more evenly through rough-surfaced pipes and more turbulently through smooth ones, he adds, "I scribbled a note . . . thinking it an image that was bound to come in handy for something, sometime." Sadly, it does, and sooner than he thinks.

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