A few weeks back I “took ship” in Liverpool, and headed off to find America with the English author Jonathan Raban.
It was pure pleasure – page after page of portrait and insight.
There is no pattern to Hunting Mr Heartbreak, rather it is four pieces of different cloth woven into a tapestry of America.
The book docks in New York, where the author stays awhile before he moves on to Alabama, Seattle and the Florida Keys. At each place Raban introduces us to a selection of locals who lead down into the root systems of the worlds he describes.
Our first introduction is to Alice. We never meet her but Raban lives in her apartment on the 7th floor of East 18th in New York, high above the city rush of “heart attack and heartbreak”. From this neat, self-contained base he travels out to the escalators of the “puzzling multi-storey fiction” that is Macy’s, and then back on to the streets of New York to meet the homeless, and, above them, the ‘air people’.
This city visit is jagged and restless, and the author is glad to leave it behind and drive south towards his next stop – Guntersville, Alabama.
Here, his base is a cabin in the woods at Polecat Hollow, where wild nature is the new unease. It reminds Raban of Letters from an American Farmer, written some two centuries earlier by Crèvecoeur (Mr Heartbreak):
“And if the Crèvecoeur hypothesis held good, I had lit on the cradle of American savagery, in the state that harboured more venomous creatures than any other in the Union.”
To keep safe local help is hired. She has four paws and a thumping tail, and answers, when she feels like it, to the name Gyspy. She is a caramel-eyed charmer, an elderly black labrador and “…genius heart-melter; all I had to do was to tag along behind.”
Gypsy’s friendliness ambles with Raban around the great, the studious, the gun-toting, and the culturally adrift of Guntersville, but, sadly, cannot follow him on to his next stop – Seattle.
“Life here, in daylight hours at least, seemed to be conducted according to the unwritten rules of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. Even the street people had the air of members in good standing.”
Seattle is a city of new arrivals, particularly Koreans, so Raban takes us to get to know a few in their own words: millionaire, pastor, landscape gardener, and hospital nurse. The conversations are all about language problems and success, self-belief and enterprise…the energy of America.
The book’s final stop is in the Florida Keys with“its torpid climate and its insistent buzz of criminality”… and its temptations. In Key West even Raban is tempted, and suggests that as a younger man he might have stayed:
“…to teach Wordsworth to the shrimpers’ children, to live blamelessly in this blameful city of guises and disguises.”
And, that as an older man, he might choose it as a place of rest, a place to be relieved of all the “striving and becoming”.
We leave him there, surrounded by “sunny indolence” and sea, to plot his next trip around the rough edges of America.
Jonathan Raban (born 1942), has written many travel books of which five have been reissued recently by Eland Publishing.
Hunting Mr Heartbreak – A Discovery of America by Jonathan Raban
Published by Eland Publishing Limited
61 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QL
UK price £12.99
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018