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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jonathan Raban

At a glance
Passage To Juneau
by Jonathan Raban

Vintage Departures
448 pages, $$15

In modern literature, it's often hard to tell what's fiction from what's nonfiction.

And we're not even talking about the kind nonfiction that clearly is fiction (can you say Jayson Blair?).

Realistic writing that uses the conventions employed by novelists and short-story writers is known by many names. Creative nonfiction, factual fiction, documentary narrative are just three terms they use at the University of Oregon, which actually offers a graduate degree in "literary nonfiction."

But in getting to the heart of what the genre actually is, which can take the shape of anything from memoir to personal reporting, the UO program guide offers this definition: "The genre recognizes both the inherent power of the real and the deep resonance of the literary. It is a form that allows a writer both to narrate facts and to search for truth, blending the empirical eye of the reporter with the moral vision - the I - of the novelist."

That's truth as in the real, empirical as in the authentic.

There are many authors who work in the form, several of them from the Paficic Northwest. The list includes Kim Barnes, Mary Clearman Blew, John Keeble, Tim Egan - and Jonathan Raban.

It's Raban whom we are most interested in here. The British-born author, who lives in Seattle, has written several such nonfiction studies: "Hunting Mr. Heartbreak: A Discovery of America" (1991) is Raban's retelling of the drive he made across the U.S. to see the real America; in "Bad Land: An American Romance" (1996), Raban takes a first-person look at the early-20th-century attempts to open up Montana to farmer/settlers; and "Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings" (1999) balances the sailing trip that Raban took up the Inland Passage against the area's history, his own struggling marriage and his father's failing health.

It's that last book, Raban's 11th, that is most important here, it being the August choice for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Raban, who was born in 1942 in Norfolk, England, has lived in Seattle since 1990. He balances his nonfiction with book reviews, the occasional op-ed piece and works of fiction.

His 2003 novel "Waxwings" was, said Washington Post book reviewer Katherine Powers, his first novel in "almost 20 years. He has spent the intervening time writing chiefly of his travels, and his eye for the telling, resonant detail is abundantly evident here. In its comedy and melancholy appreciation of the human predicament in the new millennium, this novel goes a long way toward making it bearable."

The same can be said for "Passage to Juneau," the obvious difference being that the poignancy Raban captures applies to his own life.

Raban, who admits that he is far from an expert sailor, wrote that his intent in making the solo voyage in his 30-foot ketch from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, was to "come to terms, somehow, with the peculiar attraction that draws people to put themselves afloat on the deep, dark, indifferent, cold, and frightening sea. 'Meditation and water are wedded for ever,' wrote Melville. So, for the term of a fishing season, I meant to meditate on the sea, at sea."

And so Raban is continually looking at what is around him, seeing what's there now - a body of water with a number of dangers but also incredible beauty, tourists blending with those who still work at fishing and logging - with what was there in the past: Indians and their first meetings with white sailors, white sailors such as English Capt. George Vancouver.

But he also looks at his own life, recording the pain he feels with the absence of his daughter. Raban flies to England at one point, giving us a feel for what he childhood must have been like. And then there is the growing distance between him and his wife.

All of this is told in a prose that is as well-crafted as it is educational.

"The Gulf of Alaska is a weather-kitchen," Raban wrote. "Pacific depressions, drifting over the ocean from the far southwest, hit the gulf, stall there, and intensify. As the atmospheric pressure at the center of the system sinks, the winds spinning around the hub speed up, to 50, 60, 80 knots. The waves build into untidy heaps; the sea goes streaky-white. Made steeper and impeded by the powerful tidal currents that pour out of the narrow passages between islands, the wave-trains turn near the coast into a short, precipitous, hollow sea of roaring 50-foot crests and ship-swallowing holes in the water."

And, on more than one occasion, Raban proves particularly insightful, especially for a writer who makes his living by leaving, which is something his 31/2-year-old daughter can't understand.

"Traveling always entails infidelity," he wrote. "You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you're a rat. I was an experienced deserter, but never until now had I been squarely faced with my treachery."

This kind of treachery, though, is what writers - the best ones, at least - use to imbue their nonfiction with the kind of drama that raises their stories above the level of average, mundane existence. In that sense it might not be exactly real.

But it certainly is authentic.

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