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Book Review - Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Strangers in a Strange Land

Jonathan Raban

Published by Pantheon Books

Review by W. R. Greer

Home. That word conjures images of comfort, family, and safety. It's the place we choose to live, where we hang our hat, and it holds our most precious possessions. How do we react when our vision of home, or its security, is threatened? In Jonathan Raban's Waxwings, the concept of home takes on several meanings: a house, a family, a city, and a country.

The protagonist in Waxwings is Tom Janeway, born Tom Szany in Hungary. His parents emigrated to England when he was a young boy, and for all intents and purposes, he is an Englishman. He was educated and became a successful novelist there. On a book tour in the U.S., he met Beth in Seattle. Soon, he had landed a job as a professor of Victorian literature at the University of Washington, married Beth, and they had a son, Finn. Seattle became his new home.

Waxwings begins at the end of the twentieth century with Tom and Beth married eight years with Finn as a four-year old at a pre-school center called Treetops. They own a grand old house that Tom fell in love with immediately. He had traded a life of solitude in England for family life in America and was exuberant at his acquisition of this new life.

Tom hardly felt in need of good luck nowadays. His new American life -- and after eight years, he was surprised by how it still retained the gleam of novelty -- had happened to him rather as a child's Christmas might fall suddenly, unheralded, out of season. For a man long used to solitude, irregularly punctuated by flings and affairs that blazed, then fizzled out, like fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, marriage and fatherhood were the big gifts. The job -- if being the Weyerhauser Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing could be called a job, exactly -- had liberated him from the quiet panic and exiguous dodges of freelancing, and left him able to enjoy those gifts in all their unanticipated luxury and profusion.

Unfortunately, for Tom, these gifts of marriage and fatherhood were things to be admired, as a painting on a wall might be gazed at fondly. Once these gifts were acquired, he invested no maintenance in them, and felt free to devote his time and energy to his true love: books and literature. What Tom failed to notice, however, was Beth's growing frustration and steps to assert her own independence, and Finn's behavioral problems at Treetops. When Beth left him for a new start in life in a swank, new condominium complex, Tom was caught completely unaware. The facade he had constructed around his idea of home suddenly came crashing down. It was the first of many events that would cause his life to begin to unravel.

Parallel to Tom's story is the one for Jin Peng, a Chinese man who came to America also in search of a better life. Jin, however, arrived in a container aboard a ship whose difficult sea crossing led to the deaths of several of his immigrant companions. Those who survived in the container were rounded up by the Immigration Service once they arrived in Seattle, with the exception of Jin, who managed to escape undetected. He is an intelligent and resourceful man, soon finding a false identity, a job, and a nickname: Chick. Chick quickly scrambles up the financial ladder and hires illegal Mexican workers for his new contractor business. In search of houses that need obvious reconstruction, Chick ends up at the doorway of Tom Janeway, whose house and home are in a serious state of disrepair.

Chick is constantly either dazzled or disgusted by what he finds in America. His mindset is drawn from his life in China, expecting to be jailed or beaten if he doesn't keep a low profile. He expects nothing to be given to him, but he'll take what's needed if it's unused by someone else, and his quick mind and work ethic help him find his way in his new homeland. His ignorance often leads him to be exploited, but it provides a lesson for him from which he learns to use to his own advantage in the future.

Beth is also starting out with a new home. After years of deferring most things to Tom's preferences, including the old house she didn't want, she's finds comfort in making decisions that suit only herself. While she was once a journalist, she'd traded it in for a new dot com job with stock options that promised to make her a wealthy woman. She'd already indulged in a fancy car, paying cash for it. With a new job, a new condominium, and new friends, her life was moving upward in the fashion she wanted, one that seemed unavailable with Tom who was constantly stuck in the past.

Setting the story at the turn of the century, Jonathan Raban chooses a time and place where change is unfolding along with the events of Tom's and Chick's lives. Woven into the story are the WTO riots, the arrest of a suspected terrorist at the border which led to the canceling of the millennium celebration at the Space Needle, and the crash of the Alaskan Airlines flight on the way to Seattle. The novel even begins with the story of a young girl carried off by a cougar while playing in the yard at a day care center. It's these random events that constantly threaten to upset lives and can strike at any time. The construct of home is fragile enough without having to weather these tragedies.

While walking along a trail one day, Tom is lost in thought about the new novel he wants to write. A young girl is abducted from that same trail during his walk. Tom was so lost in thought that he doesn't even remember seeing the girl or her siblings. Others remember seeing Tom, and he's soon highlighted by the police as a "person of interest." His picture is shown on television and he's questioned by police. The police detective is frustrated at Tom's inability to remember any real details about his walk.

"You know what, Thomas? I think you're the most goddamn self-absorbed guy I ever met."

"You sound a bit like my wife." Tom's laugh was snickering, conciliatory, meant to take the heat out of the moment.

"Tell her I'm on her side." There was no humor in the detective's voice.

As Chick and his crew tear down the parts of Tom's house that needs rebuilding, the rest of his life suffers a similar deconstruction. His suspicion in the girl's disappearance leads to his suspension by the university and the loss of the radio commentaries he did for NPR. People avoid him and anonymous phone callers abuse him. This all leads Tom to question his new country and he fears he could be deported back to England.

Jonathan Raban has expertly caught the variety of struggles presented in this novel: a city growing quickly but struggling to hang onto its past, an overheated economy about to burst, and man's struggle to define his own existence. Tom Janeway had to approach the threshold of losing everything to find out what really mattered in his life. Chick gave up everything he had to start anew and tackles every day as a new challenge. Raban is an English novelist living in Seattle, and a lot of this novel is very English. Tom Janeway's total absorption of Victorian literature and his English upbringing allows for the story to be peppered full of literary allusions and British references unknown to most Americans. These don't detract from the story, but serve to highlight the dichotomy in Tom's life, half English and half American, with a foot in both countries and perhaps permanence in neither.

This is a splendidly written novel. Jonathan Raban constructs sentences that sing their purpose and suddenly burst forth with an idea or imagery that catches you unaware, and then you realize it was there all along and you just hadn't noticed it yet. Tom Janeway can be a maddening character to place at the center of a novel, and this is the one weakness with Waxwings. At times his self-absorption is so involved that the plot drags as Tom plods along. I wished at times Chick was more involved in the storyline since he was a more dynamic character. The book takes flight in the second half, though, as Tom grows more aware of his life and is surprised by the realities he's either ignored or assumed incorrectly.

Despite the slowness of plot at times, Waxwings is that rare combination of skillful writing, sharp characterizations, and ideas that sneak up on you and grab your attention. For those who enjoy literature of that vintage, this is a fine book to savor.

Copyright © 2003

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