Waxwings, Jonathan Raban

D J Taylor welcomes a novel of exile as English and Chinese incomers pursue American dreams
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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Raban's travel books weave distinctive variations on the stand-off between continuity and dissonance on which the genre usually relies. The prairie reporter of Badland, for example, is astonished to find the ancient ranchers at a Montana rodeo talking in ripe Norfolk accents before moving on to plunder the débris from some blighted shack where only tumbleweeds have rolled for the last half-century. Waxwings, the opening volume of an ambitious-sounding "tetratology", plays the same trick in fiction, for all that its location in Seattle - Raban's domicile these past 13 years - hints at a fairly serious autobiographical undertow.

Tom Janeway, Raban's fortysomething Anglo-Hungarian lead ( a "distinguished professor of creative writing" at the local university and the author of two highbrow bestsellers), feels finally at home here on the north-western extremity of his adopted homeland. "Unlike most American cities that Tom knew, there was a here here, where herring gulls were a traffic hazard and all streets led down to the water." In Seattle, Tom imagines "he has at last learned to live in the present".

The present is a punctiliously rendered late 1999, with WTO protestors rampaging on the streets, internet start-ups and their venture capitalist sponsors in ceaseless dalliance, and change - personal and environmental - in the air. Tom's spectacular drubbing at the hands of malign chance has all the sneaky determinism of a Hardy novel. Some broadcast ironisings at the expense of his wife's job at "GetaShack.com" expose the frailty of his marriage. A moody walk along the river has him marked down as a "person of interest" in an abduction case.

Meanwhile, a second, more sharp-eyed, newcomer has emerged to grapple dextrously with the American dream. This is 24-year-old Jin Peng from Lianjiang, decanted from the fetid hold of a cargo ship and now forging a lucrative career as a freelance roofer-cum-gangmaster. For the rest of the novel the two careers run in bleak counterpoint: Jin Peng (soon rechristened Chick) swiftly achieving a new identity and status; Tom ostracised by colleagues and students, suspended from his radio gig, access to his engaging son ever more problematic, eventually finding redress.

Like Malcolm Bradbury's Stepping Westward, to which it bears certain slight resemblances, Waxwings is on one level a novel about milk-and-water English liberalism colliding with its much steelier American cousin. It is also, transparently, as much a piece of reportage as a work of fiction. A droll sub-plot, which finds Tom negotiating with a louche English novelist over a creative writing post, has him reflect that "By the time English writers reached Seattle, they usually had the United States figured out from top to bottom." There is a faint obtrusiveness, consequently, about some of the style-guide resumés of the local entrepreneurs, and the Dickensian lens - with vengeful quotation from Our Mutual Friend - trained on their social gatherings.

Waxwings is zestfully written and full of deftly humorous touches. The novel's bitterest ironies surround Tom's claim to be living, successfully, in the present. For all its meticulous surveys of New America, this is at bedrock a novel about the interfering hand of the past. Some of the sharpest exchanges are between Tom and his old mother back in ther Romford flat: loneliness, deracination and, above all, exile.