Jonathan Raban is an Englishman with a fascination and sympathy for the American spirit as it exists in both fantasy and reality. At the beginning of the 1980’s, in Old Glory (1981), he wrote of his experiences piloting a boat down the Mississippi River, tracing the journey of the archetypal American free spirit Huckleberry Finn. Starting in Minneapolis, Raban made his way down the continent to Louisiana, stopping along the shore to observe and record the characters he encountered. Old Glory captured America at the depressing end of the Carter tenure and the beginning of the so-called Reagan Revolution. Ten years later, Raban returned to the United States for another look. This time, rather than limit himself to one long swath of America, he chose to pick several geographically distant and distinct locales and to live in those places for an extended time, to become (as much as possible for a foreigner) a resident of each section. Thus, for a period of approximately two years (Raban’s chronology in the book is vague at best, but he passes two Thanksgivings; in reality the time covered was from 1988 to 1990), the writer settles in, attempts to develop an acceptable identity for each community, and records his experiences as both observer and participant.
If in Old Glory Raban played at being Huck Finn, in Hunting Mister Heartbreak he takes as his model the French traveler and adventurer Michel-Guillaume Jean (Hector St. John) de Crevecoeur (1735-1813), whose Letters From an American Farmer (1782) offered a largely optimistic, romantic view of the possibilities of the New World in America and helped to establish the European concept of the “American.” Like de Crevecoeur, Raban is predisposed toward the country, although he certainly recognizes its faults and foibles. Indeed, Raban approaches his material with a romantic’s excitement and a modernist’s eye. Despite his efforts at creating a certain drama on his journey (after leaving Liverpool, for example, his ship’s near encounter with Tropical Storm Hélène occasions some very fine descriptive passages of an unruly ocean), Raban adopts a basically ironic, or perhaps whimsical, tone in chronicling his trip. Rather than amazed, Raban is more often surprised and bemused by what he sees.
The first section of the book describes Raban’s voyage from Liverpool to New York on the ship Atlantic Conveyor, an enormous container ship carrying European exports—cars, liquor, perfume, clothes—to America. Raban travels as a guest of the ship’s owner and resides in a “roomy studio apartment furnished with bookcases, a refrigerator, a king-size bed, a comfortable sofa, a long desk of varnished pine, a cabinet for drinks and glasses, a coffee table and his own lavatory and shower.” Having initially set up implied comparisons between himself and earlier travelers, Raban confronts humorously the fact that his journey is in most ways a privileged man’s holiday. Indeed, throughout his wanderings, Raban associates mostly with the cultured and well-to-do. Even when he does choose to live in marginal areas, he recognizes that his stay is temporary, that he is not really of those people, that he is primarily an observer and an outsider. Thus, the American he sees is, with some exceptions, a selective one.
Raban’s first stay is in New York City, where he sublets the apartment of a woman named Alice. She becomes the first of his several adopted identities (like de Crevecoeur himself, who changed his name after coming to America). “This deal was a technical breach of the regulations of the building, so I had been told to present myself to the doormen and the super as Alice’s cousin, or at least her intimate friend. So far as the handicaps of sex and voice allowed, I had to be as nearly Alice herself as I could manage,” Raban explains. As “Alice,” Raban moves through the looking glass to explore the world beyond. He tries to see New York as Alice must see it. “If you were going to learn to live here, you’d have to go deaf to the sound of New York and set up house in the silent bubble of your own preoccupations. . . . For me the New York air was full of robbery and murder; for her, it would all be inaudible white noise.”
Raban, of course, has been to New York before, remembers it from earlier visits, and records how the city—and, by extension, American society—has changed. What he witnesses is the last desperate splurge of American consumerism in the final years of Reagan. This conversion is best illustrated for him by Macy’s Department Store, which he recalls as having been a haven for solid, inexpensive, everyday goods in the early 1970’s. Now, however, Macy’s “was platinum-card country; a twinkling gallery, as big as a battlefield, of gold, silk, scent and lizardskin. When I’d last been here, there had been a slogan painted over the entrance: IT’S SMART TO BE THRIFTY. Sometime between the age of Richard Nixon and the last days of Ronald Reagan, that homely touch of American puritanism had been whitewashed over. Only frumps were thrifty now.” It is the world of Ralph Lauren, in Raban’s view an artificial, pseudopastoral never- never land of “besotted unrealism” garnered from repeated viewings of Masterpiece Theatre.