OLD GLORY: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban
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OLD GLORY: An American Voyage

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Living out his boyhood Huck-Finn fantasy, Raban rode the Mississippi from Minneapolis to the bayous; and his long, moseying account of the journey is just the thing to sate--and to satisfy--all those with the same secret urge. It's a case, supremely, of going with the flow. All the flow. Raban is English--so doors open, and checks are cashed, at the sound of his accent. He's a lone adventurer--forced to cast off six times for Minneapolis TV, worried over by the river regulars, envied by each town's young riverfront lounger, its ""haunted boy."" He's also himself--a rueful 37-year-old writer (Soft City, Arabia) and ""escape artist"" (from marriage, from academe), destined to meet up with others of his kind (""You taught at Smith! Well, shit. I was at Bennington""). And he's properly uneasy about the casual, intense contacts, ""the careless drift through other people's lives."" Those contacts are mid-American social history with the difference, usually, that Raban isn't pressing for definitive judgments. What to make of Beverly, for instance, ""an enormous slut"" with a cache of knotty Biblical quotations? or her husband Bob, who escapes from Washington politicians and beautiful people into his private community of radio hams--in lieu of a wilderness frontier!? Not only people and towns but congregations get their due: ""The Baptists might find it easy to shun the wrong and do the right; but the Church of Christ knew otherwise."" (As a minister's son, Raban doesn't miss a cadence.) And he does, now and again, pull out an abstraction. Muscatine, Iowa, is a ""true industrial capital of the unconsidered object. . ."" (""as worthy of the loving gaze of the film camera as Rockefeller Center or the roller-coaster freeways of Hollywood and Santa Monica""). Vicksburg's Rivertown Club, ""high on top of an anonymous motel,"" is the New South: ""I could hear Harvard Business School over in the corner, Brooklyn Irish on the sofa, the sand and snap of the urban Midwest in the armchair just behind me."" Twice, just twice, he stays on--in ""dead"" St. Louis, with quixotic, quicksilver Sally; in Memphis--""to see Otis Higgs reach City Hall."" It isn't to be--a black mayor may still be premature--but the book peaks at a church rally when Higgs intones (to organ swellings and ""Amens"") ""We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . ."" It also has its desultory stretches; if you put it down for a day or two, you may need a map to discover where you're at. But what is most special here is independent of place--and timeless: the sense of that eternal tug between solitude and society. Yet the river, if a metaphor, also boils and deceives. A lot of book, altogether.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster