From the best-selling author of Passage to Juneau--"Raban at his best," wrote Ian McEwan--an unsettling, tender, and always surprising novel set in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, when the high-tech Gold Rush threatens to overwhelm the actual world with its myriad virtual alternatives.
Two immigrants, though, are drawn here by more traditional versions of the American Dream. For Tom Janeway--a Hungarian-born Englishman--it is the wife and son he thought he'd never have. For an illegal alien--Chick, as he comes to call himself--it is the land of opportunity he'd imagined back in Fujian province. Given the overheated service economy, mutual need introduces the writer-professor-NPR-commentator to this enterprising handyman, and each soon finds himself strangely dependent on the other. Because meanwhile, all around them, people are busily charting futures that are obscure to, or exclude, anyone else.
Waxwings masterfully depicts the social realities of a boomtown in flux, as well as the illusions that distract its inhabitants from the most basic human impulse: to create a place we can call home. This is what Chick dreams of achieving, and what Tom must suddenly struggle to preserve. As the NASDAQ index spirals upward, street riots break out, a terrorist is arrested, a child disappears, a jetliner goes down--and the city, rimmed with feral countryside, begins to emerge in its true colors.
The Washington Post proclaimed of Foreign Land that "Jonathan Raban's achievements in this novel are nothing short of awesome," and with Waxwings--exquisitely written and hugely entertaining--he demonstrates more powerfully than ever before that he "invests his characters with such freshness and warmth, writes prose of such Wordsworth-like beauty, and does it all with such effortless mastery that he takes the reader's breath away."
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
A Hungarian-born British expatriate settled in dot-com-frenzied Seattle is the bemused protagonist of this inspired jumble of a novel, travel writer Raban's first since 1985's Foreign Land. Tom Janeway is a professor of writing, a novelist and a public radio commentator; his wife, Beth, works for GetaShack.com, a startup providing virtual neighborhood tours for prospective house buyers. They have a four-year-old son named Finn, and they appear content. Behind the happy facade, though, Beth has grown deeply unhappy with her self-absorbed husband, his immersion in books and his pretentious radio voice ("his fucking rolled r's")-she hankers after expensive cars, a bright new condo and honest attention. Unfolding in counterpoint to Raban's chronicle of the rather civilized collapse of their marriage is the story of a shady Chinese immigrant called Chick; he survives a horrific journey to America and becomes an off-the-books contractor who bullies Tom into employing him to renovate their gloomy old house after Beth moves out. Beneath the surface, larger currents are swirling, and Tom is suddenly swept up in them when he goes for a walk on a local nature trail and is misidentified as a suspect in a series of child murders. Chick's unpredictable antics sharpen the sense of menace, while a subplot about an egotistical British novelist who is considering a residency at Tom's college provides effective comic relief. Raban's caustic, affectionate commentary on the manic gyrations of millennial America unites these disparate plot lines, making his novel a wry paean to the cluttered, freewheeling lives led by the motley residents of an immigrant nation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 27, 2004
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Excerpt from Waxwings by Jonathan Raban
"November," the pilot said.
Wave-crests were breaking gray on a sea as black as cr�pe. Ragged nimbus clouds brushed the ship's bridge. The lone spot of color was on the radar screen, where the coastline showed as a wide brushstroke of glowing copper.
"Steady as she goes," the pilot said. "Zero-seven-five."
"Zero-seven-five." Compact, broad-bottomed, the captain was a dense blot of shadow at the wheel.
They spoke quietly, as if they were in church. Eleven stories up from the water, the noise of the engines was a distant rumor. Though a westerly gale was blowing down Juan de Fuca Strait, it was inaudible on the bridge, for the ship had been built with hurricanes and typhoons in mind, and the bronchial churring of the air-conditioner drowned out whatever sounds were being made by the weather. The Pacific Auriga, 51,000 tons, bound for Seattle from Osaka and Hong Kong, was too big to notice the small sea on which it now found itself, its only apparent motion a slight mechanical vibration underfoot.
"You've got the Dungeness light there, Cap," the pilot said. "Starboard. Two o'clock."
"Yes, I've got it," the captain said, a little shortly, for he was an old hand on this run, and the pilot new to him. Stepping aboard from the launch off Port Angeles, the pilot presented himself on the bridge with a cocky, affectless assurance to which the captain, a New Zealander, took an immediate dislike. Now the young American was fiddling with the radar closest to the wheel, officiously targeting echoes.
"You can go to zero-eight-zero, Cap. The spit's right on the two-mile ring. Tide's making about three knots."
"We usually see Doug--Doug Nielsen?"
"Captain Nielsen's taking the week off. Family emergency."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Ahead of the bridge, lines of stacked containers stretched away into the darkness. The water puddled on their tops caught the light from the deck below the bridge and glistened like a wet highway, blinding the Captain to the sea beneath the ship.
"Better slow her down to eleven, twelve knots--whatever's comfortable," the pilot said, voicing what the Captain had already decided. "We're in no hurry. You'll be dropping the hook for the night in Elliott Bay: they won't berth you at Harbor Island till five at the earliest."
"Your cabin's made up--the purser saw to it. David?" the Captain said to the lounging shadow of the Third Officer. "Could you rustle up a fresh pot of coffee? Coffee for you, Mr.--?"
"Warren," the pilot said, "Warren Kress," speaking his name for the second time in fifteen minutes. "You have decaf?"
"We're out of decaf," the Third Officer said. "I can make you a cup of tea, if you want."
"My wife's got me on decaf these days," Kress said. "I'll take a glass of water, though." As he moved away from the radar, he unfolded himself, slowly, in sections, and stood as tall as a basketball player. From somewhere above the Captain's head, he said, "Yeah, the funeral was today."
"Captain Nielsen's grandkid."
"Not the little girl? He was talking about her last time he was on board. She--died?"
"Yeah, she got killed. Five years old. It was just a couple days after her birthday."
"Oh, Jesus. What was it--a car accident?"
The brand of car that ran her down? the Captain thought. Why does he have to say that?
"A mountain lion," the pilot said. "She was killed by a cougar."
"She was at her day-care. In Sequim. It's a Montessori place in a new development out there, real close to the woods. Ashley--the kid--was playing by herself in the yard, a ways off from the others, and the cougar dragged her into the bushes. Teacher was in the bathroom--and I wouldn't care to be in her shoes right now. The other kids say they never heard her yell or anything. She just disappeared. First they thought she'd wandered off, then that a child-molester must've abducted her. They were running around looking for a man, and it was half an hour before they found her. A clean kill--one bite severed the carotid artery. Her right arm was gone, torn right out of the socket. Port fifteen, Captain: zero-eight-zero."
The pilot, his voice level and dispassionate, sounded like a radio announcer reading from a bulletin.
"They got the cat. The Fish and Wildlife guys treed and shot her about a mile away. They were lucky to find her, but the day-care's toast: they were meant to have a chain-link fence around the yard, according to code, and the subcontractor fouled it up. They'd only been open since Labor Day. The family's bringing suit."
To starboard, the low black hills inched slowly past, pin-pricked with tangerine lights. Sequim.
"Everyone's in shock. More'n a thousand people showed up for the funeral, so I heard."
"Poor bloody Doug," the captain said.