Any fool with a world atlas, a stock of vivid adjectives, and a portable typewriter can get into the travel-writing game. But as Jonathan Raban last demonstrated in Old Glory (1981), what distinguishes the great travel writer is less a matter of where he goes than what he takes with him. A rambling account of the idiosyncratic Englishman’s journey down the Mississippi, Old Glory gave American readers a fresh look at their own country as only an affectionate foreigner with a novelist’s eye and a fondness for odd characters could portray it.
Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America (the title is borrowed from a John Berryman poem) is a companion volume of sorts.
Setting out from Liverpool in a massive containerized-cargo ship called the Atlantic Conveyor, the author re-creates the experience of immigrating to the U.S. and explores ”the magical melodrama involved in becoming — and remaining — an American.” Instead of cavorting restlessly about the landscape, he settles for a while into four strikingly different American locations — Manhattan, rural Alabama, Seattle, and the Florida Keys — and tries them on for size.
Is it really possible, Raban asks, to reinvent oneself as a new man in the New World? As one would expect from a writer of his subtlety and originality, he gives no simple answer. But then, as in any quest worth undertaking, the adventure itself is its own reward. Actually, Raban seems to imply that the very concept of the American dream has almost as many meanings — for good and ill — as there are immigrants to invent it.
But it’s the concrete rather than the general — Raban’s apparently inexhaustible curiosity about the most commonplace details of American life and lives — that makes Hunting Mister Heartbreak such a remarkable book. Nothing bores the man. Whether he’s barhopping in the ”Lilliputian metropolis” of Halifax, Nova Scotia; sitting on a Manhattan fire hydrant being ”willed into nonexistence by total strangers” and feeling ”the force of (their) frank contempt”; or walking a levee in Guntersville, Ala., observing that all white folks fish from boats, all blacks from the bank, Raban makes even the most familiar facts seem brand-new.
Even so humdrum an event as the landing of an airliner can be transformed by the author’s characteristic wit. ”There is something comic about the way they lumber in so self-importantly from the sky,” he writes. ”Their imperial obesity, their thunder and ado. They make their entrances like Tamburlaine the Scourge of God. Then, minutes later, you see them shackled up to yellow tractors, being led around the inner reaches of the terminal like great blind boobies.”
What really sets Hunting Mister Heartbreak apart from other travel narratives, though, is Raban’s ability to chat up fellow immigrants of every sort — pushcart peddlers from the Ukraine, Korean rock drummers, even a runaway sea captain from Nottingham earning his fortune conducting gays-only snorkeling expeditions (”Beef on the Reef,” his advertising fliers announce). One of a kind. A