Half-drunk and gazing at the sea from the window of his creaky old Seattle house, Hungarian-born Tom Janeway, a middle-aged professor, writer, and NPR commentator, is ”struck dizzy by the thought that he wanted nothing else than to be here, now.”
A protagonist this happy on page 25 of a 282-page novel would seem to be in for some rough times ahead, and sure enough, Tom sees more than his share in Waxwings, the marvelous opening installment of Raban’s proposed trilogy set in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the fall of 1999, and Tom’s wife, Beth, works at a go-go dotcom where her options have begun to vest. Unbeknownst to Tom, her greatest pleasure of recent weeks has been fleeing their shambling house and sliding into her brand-new Audi, the purchase of which she counts as ”the most reckless act of self-indulgence she’d ever dared to commit.” She’s been nursing a grudge against her reflexively ironical husband and seethes when she catches one of his wry radio disquisitions on the New Economy. ”He no more understood the online world than he did particle physics…. Once, she had thought him brilliant. Well, she thought, live and f—ing learn.”
Reminiscent of T.C. Boyle’s blistering ”The Tortilla Curtain,” Raban intertwines the Janeways’ story with the Horatio Alger rise of Jin Peng, a Chinese stowaway who arrives illegally on a container ship and launches himself with unbridled determination into Seattle’s construction industry. He renames himself Chick, acquires a gang of Mexican laborers, and turns up at Tom’s house offering to fix his decrepit roof. Before long, he is living there.
”Waxwings” is an intricate social novel of the type that Tom Wolfe loves to carry on about – but doesn’t actually execute very well. As with Wolfe’s extravaganzas, ”Waxwings” teems with juicy, funny characters emblematic of their time and place: Shiva Ray, a mysterious philanthropist who makes all his phone calls from planes, ”giving the impression that a brief moment of leisure was only possible in the sky” and David Scott-Rice, a pudgy British hack who ostentatiously smokes when he’s in Seattle ”to ‘épater’ the Americans.”
But, unlike Wolfe, Raban knows how to bridge the gap between the broad social canvas of satire and the interior life of delicate, rounded characters. The Janeways’ marital collapse is a socioeconomic event, a casualty of Beth’s surging salary and self-confidence. Yet it’s also deeply rooted in the nature of these two precisely drawn human beings: Beth, so crisp and practical that she picks out a condo before telling Tom she’s leaving; Tom, woolly-headed and self-absorbed to the point that her declaration comes as a complete shock.
For 30 years, Raban has been writing multilayered books of travel, memoir, sea lore, and history – sometimes all crammed into the same meaty volume. ”Passage to Juneau,” his dense, discursive account of a sailing trip from Seattle to Alaska, was a flat-out masterpiece.
”Waxwings” isn’t – quite. Chick remains a caricature of naked ambition with a bad accent, and the book feels too short to accommodate all the weighty themes and ideas it’s taken on. Then again, this is an intended trilogy, and Raban may be just warming up.