I think it's safe to say the novels aren't the place to begin.
I started with Passage and while I would probably agree that it's the masterpiece, I've never been disappointed working back from that. You're probably right about Hunting Mr. Heartbreak. At least something of that era will lead you right into the meat of Raban. Coasting, Bad Lands, Old Glory; I think these are all quintessential and you can pick and chose your geographic setting and not go wrong.
Bad Land is the masterpiece.
I'd start by listening to Serge Gainsbourg's Ford Mustang:
Un Ã©crou de chez
Un tube d'aspirine
It's entirely different Raban referred to of course. But it hardly matters. It's the most stylish uttering of "Raban" you will ever hear.
There is a bit of levity to this suggestion but getting into the mood for reading good prose is like getting into the right state of mind to do yoga. Done the wrong way and reading eats the soul. A good Gainsbourg song like this one, and a nice bottle of, say, Corbieres if you must, St Joseph if you can afford it, and you are halfway to enjoying anything in his oeuvre.
The choice of wine and song is not arbitrary. Try reading, say, Barchester Towers with a Gainsbourg and Corbieres, and you wind up looking for cats to strangle. Sadly, for several cats, I never did find a good wine for Trollope.
Enough. Time for some Chablis, a bit Townes van Zandt and a quick buzz through Charles Portis's Norwood, with some Tequila thrown in 'round midnight.
I'd recommend picking up Waxwings. It's a novel, which makes it a little easier than some of his non-fiction to begin with, and there's an awful lot to recommend it to the neo-Rabanite. Though it is certainly political, it's set in the late 90's, in a pre-Bush world. It takes place in Seattle during a particularly exciting time in this town- when crazed bombers were sneaking into town and the excellent WTO demonstrations were in full swing. But best of all, it's a very engaging story about very real people from varied walks of life meeting each other. Realistic without being cynical and angry without being bitter, I'd have to recommend Waxwings for a first go.
"Passage" for non-fiction, and for being one of the best descriptions of traversing the inland passage since the Vancouver Expedition.
"Waxwings" for being a spot-on snapshot of the Seattle landscape in the pre-dotcom bust era.
>Bad Land is the masterpiece.
Alright fnarf, for kicks let's pretend that I think you're dead wrong. Bad Land is awesome. It completely nails the history and the present of the region. Passage nails the history and the present of the region as well, but it also nails the life and innards of Jonathan Raban. To my recollection Raban's pulled back a bit in Bad Land which disqualifies it for any masterpiece-like honors. Still a great first Raban book to read, though.
Well, of course he "pulled back" a bit -- it's not his story. I guess if your primary interest is Jonathan Raban's personality, then it's the wrong book, but if you want to understand America and the the West, you have to read the book. Homesteading is one of the basic support pillars of this country's history, and this picture of how it finished was largely untold until this book.
I think they're all ultimately his story. At one level these books are playing a particular region in the U.S. against an English guy and they're successfull at that level, even to the point of largely telling untold stories of homesteading or the ole miss or whatever else. And at another level they're playing an English guy against various regions in the U.S. and they're even more successfull from that perspective. We're not aware of Raban because he writes kick ass stories about Montana and happens to live in Seattle. Who cares? We know him because he writes kick ass stories about Raban -an alien, the other, a foreigner and so illuminates us.
The first half of Passage to Juneau is a remarkably vivid account of the landscapes of the Northwest coast. Just riveting and sweet and perfect. And then the second half of the book wanders off into pointless incoherence, an irrelevant trip to England, and generally has the feel of "shit, I'd better just send this manuscript into the editor now."
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