5 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Having travelled down the length of the Mississippi in a small boat and come to love the country, Raban wanted to get the full experience of what it used to be like to be an immigrant to this vast country. His partner drops him off at the docks in Liverpool and he climbs aboard a container ship called the Atlantic Conveyor, that is ready to depart for New York. A tropical storm, called Helene, delays the voyage and makes for a rough crossing. It does give him time to think about those who were making this voyage with no intention of returning back to the UK. They pause briefly in Halifax to unload some cargo before heading onto New York.
He has secured the use of an apartment, on East 18th Street, between Union Square and Gramercy Park in New York. The concrete cell as he calls it, is half the size of the room he had aboard ship. Naturally, he checks out her bookshelves, before heading out onto the streets to walk where other immigrants first made the tentative steps in making this country their home. The grey cliffs of Manhattan are visible from the apartment and there is a constant low-level rumble of traffic the ebbs and flows throughout the day but never ceases. As he moves around the city, he begins to see that life there can be seen through the prism of the department store, Macy’s in particular. It offered a way of life for some people and a glimpse of something unobtainable for the rest. Taking time to sit on a fire hydrant and observer life as it rushed around him, he began to see that the New York was stratified into two layers; the Street People who are those who are just keeping their heads above water, and the Air people who were whisked to places by lifts, taking them far away from the street.
Having had his fill of this city it was time to hit the road. Taking the I78 and then joining the much larger I80 he headed south, flying past the drivers pootling along at 50. Arriving in Guntersville, Alabama he finds it very much different from New York. Staying in a rented cabin he sets about meeting the residents and has to borrow a dog for personal security by the lake. Realising that this community has very conservative views he keeps a lot of his opinions to himself, knowing that some will take offence to them. It was time to move on again.
This time he was travelling by plane across the country. Not his favourite form of transport, especially when the plane was stuck on the tarmac and not going anywhere any time soon. The contrast with his nerves and a guy nearby who has a basket of popcorn and a book and pays no attention to the announcements. It gives him time to consider the differences between the American’s ease in which they take a plane and the event that flying in Europe is at that time. His destination is to the city where the plane was made, Seattle. It was here that he began to realise that he wanted a city he could mould to his shape, rather than having to fit in with what others did. First, though, he had to find somewhere to live, provided his car he was driving could make it. It was a place that felt American, and yet didn’t fit the other characterises that he came to know for other travels around this country.
It wouldn’t be a Raban book without some sort of boat journey and he heads to the diagonally opposite side of the country on the southern tip of Florida. While he is there he contemplates some of the, shall we say, less legal ways of making money in the region. Talking to the law enforcement people there about it he realises that it is fraught with danger and he would be in the high risk of something nasty happening to him. Chartering the Sea Mist he settles into a gentle cruise off the coast and is even brave enough to put of shorts and reveal his lily-white legs to the sun and probably consternation of the locals…
He writes about America so well, treating the flaws of the people with a warm shrug and embracing the qualities of the places he visits. I am glad too, that I read them in the order of publication, you sense as you travel with his through all his books the warmth that he has, as he meets people and places and experiences the richness of humanity in all its facets. You also sense in this book, his desire to settle somewhere that suits him and it turns out that Seattle was the place that he moved too and where he still lives now. I think that this is my favourite book of his so far of the five that I have read. Highly recommended.