Discovering the Region: Commentary

20. Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America

Jonathan Raban is a well-known, English-born writer of fiction and nonfiction (on travel, the sea, and literature) whose Hunting Mister Heartbreak depicts travels around the U.S. during the later 1980s. The book follows Raban’s adventures in New York City, Alabama, and other places before he alighted in Seattle; the chapter on the city is called “Gold Mountain.” Raban’s stay in Seattle was a positive one; by the end of “Gold Mountain” Raban was imagining moving to the city. “He could see himself here” (297). And indeed Raban left England in 1990 and settled in Seattle. One of the city’s attractions was that “there wasn’t a Seattle Novel,” and Raban “badly wanted to have a stab at rectifying that.”

Once in Seattle Raban began writing about the region in numerous ways—as a contributor to the Seattle Weekly, as a student of Northwest culture (see Raban 2001, on Northwest landscape painting), and in other guises. He has now completed what he once described as "a loose trilogy" about the Pacific Northwest. Bad Land (1996) and Passage to Juneau (2000) are the non-fiction volumes; Waxwings (2003) is the novel. Set in Seattle at the end of the 20th century, Waxwings features two immigrant men as its central characters—one an English-born professor and the other an illegal, recent arrival from China. The story thus illuminates what Raban regarded as an essential feature of the city: "A truthful Seattle novel would have to be about the newcomers," he commented in Hunting Mr. Heartbreak (Raban 1991:311). Elsewhere he noted, "My Seattle is a city of émigrés and migrants" (Raban 1994:47).

Within just a few years of arriving in Seattle, Raban was adopted as a “Northwest writer.” And even though Northwesterners do not always welcome immigrants, many came to assume that this recent transplant would in fact write the great Seattle novel. If this discoverer has succeeded in bringing insights to the condition of the modern Northwest, it is at least in part because he sees it with fresh eyes. As a newcomer, Raban perhaps does not take for granted some of those things that Northwesterners do. We continue to learn about the region from the literature of discovery.

See: Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

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