- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003


By Jonathan Raban

Pantheon Books, $24, 288 pages


Ever since Fanny Trollope sailed the Atlantic in 1827 to write “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” the Brits have been using the United States for their own literary purposes. Dickens, Wilde, Waugh, Auden — you’d think that they would finally have gotten it right after all these years. But Jonathan Raban’s latest novel, “Waxwings,” is proof merely that they’ve gotten it down: the shtick of ironic writing about America, the routine of the superior smile, the pose as the outsider who sees more clearly than the insider, and the fascinated dabbling in what they love to despise.

It’s a shame that Mr. Raban’s story of immigrants in Seattle during the dot.com boom of the late 1990s should prove so typically British — and, indeed, at the relatively low end of the coming-to-America genre, if Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit” and Waugh’s “The Loved One” are taken as the high end. Mr. Raban could always write like an angel, and back in 1996 he produced “Bad Land,” a superb nonfiction account of the blank and peopleless holes that have opened up as the old farming and ranching populations flee America’s central West.

But “Bad Land” was more about the physical landscape of the United States than about its living people. “Waxwings” is a novel about the people of America, and it arrives at no greater insight than an old, old paradox: The sum of human opportunity is available in America, which is why everyone wants to come here — yet somehow the result, as seen through British eyes, is the corruption of human interaction.

“Waxwings” (the title is a reference both to berry-eating birds of the Northwest and to the Greek myth of Icarus, flying too close to the sun on the wax wings his father designed) tells the story of a self-centered professor of creative writing named Tom Janeway. Born in Hungary but reared in England, Tom finds Seattle an odd place to live. His wife Beth works for a fast-rising electronic real estate company. Is it symbolic of America that she has fallen in love with the high-speed world of dot.com money, and out of love with her husband?

Probably, but it is also symbolic that although Tom can’t seem to get started on his new book, he seems perfectly happy with his new life as a professor and minor radio-show host. Yet another sign of the peculiarity of life in America is the way their son Finn is growing up. Believing the boy to have emotional problems, Beth takes him to a psychiatrist who — O my America — lets him play with anatomically-correct dolls and puts him on a trendy new “oligoantigenic” diet. Tom, of course, is rather taken aback by all this. And so Beth decides to pack up and leave him for an IKEA-stocked apartment, tired of his absorption in books, his lack of care for their tumbling-down house, and his failure to get up to speed in the dollar-driven United States.

At least something comes of Beth’s departure: Tom finally gets some work done on his house by hiring an illegal Chinese immigrant named Chick. (In Mr. Raban’s view, the whole of Seattle is peopled by new arrivals.) Chick arrives in Seattle inside a packing crate, and he starts the way all such people start, by scrounging for work. He begins with hard labor for a contractor who specializes in illegal workers. Eventually he learns a little English, buys a pick-up truck, and starts his own business. When Chick starts fixing up Tom’s house, the two lines of the plot at last intersect. Indeed, they more than intersect as, unbeknownst to Tom, Chick secretly moves into Tom’s basement.

Any hope that a repaired house will lure Beth back, however, is dashed when Tom becomes a suspect in the investigation of a missing child. Was it Tom’s fault that, depressed, he took a walk in a park to have a cigarette — and found himself promptly identified as the wanted cigarette smoker? That too, he discovers, is the price of life in America. The university cancels his classes, Beth won’t let Finn stay with him, and the only people who remain friendly are fellow Brits. After having a nightmare that the missing girl’s body is in his basement, Tom discovers just where Chick has been living, and the novel hurtles toward maximum confusion, danger and, well, Americanness.

Fortunately, everything works out in the end — in a sense, at least. In the book’s final lines, the waxwing birds return and strip the bushes of all their berries. As Tom might have pointed out to his students, that’s what’s known as a metaphor in the writing business. America is the place where all the fruit is consumed, and the branches are left shorn and shaken.

Fanny Trollope might have put it this way. As a matter of fact, she pretty much did. As “Bad Land” proved, Mr. Raban can write up a storm, and his new novel comprises some genuinely funny moments and a number of sharp observations about life in the United States. But, then, so has every other Briton’s account of the domestic manners of the Americans. Neither as a novel nor as an explanation of America does “Waxwings” move beyond the predictable.

Lorena Rodrigues Bottum, a Washington writer, is an immigrant to America.

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