Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban

I've always had an affection for books that start wide and then narrow their focus. I mean this literally, not speaking about subtext. Waxwings opens on the bridge of a ship coming into Elliot Bay, a perfect entry into Seattle--as if breaching the St. of Juan de Fuca and tunneling the Sound to Harbor Island traveling with (unknown to us) one of the characters was a funnel into the topic of the book.

My other favorite book that starts wide is the Heart of Darkness, but Conrad's parenthetical wrapping (two or three layers deep) by his narrator is more oblique and formatted much differently than Raban, but there certainly is a rhyme here by starting on a boat with chatter. Also rhyming between the two books is a swash of characters who are really missing the signs of life around them.

Turning back, chastened, into the hall, Tom had an out-of-the-body experience, or something uncannily like it. From a distance of ten feet or so, in the gloaming he caught a distinct glimpse of himself, shoeless, unshaven, in wrinkled denim shirt and baggy corduroys. His wooly-headed avatar was heading upstairs to his sanctum on the third floor, the hog. That room was the only one in the house with a normal supply of natural light.

Raban has a casual language and keen eye. Although some of the characters read a bit like stereotypes, he manages to pick stereotypes that aren't hackneyed. The Seattle in this novel is not necessarily the one I live in, but it's one I'm all too familiar with and witness around me. It's definitely one that exists.

Most satisfying are the events of the novel, many (as they say) ripped from the headlines of our Northwest news. Especially nice are the ones that you don't realize are from headlines until the plot plays out and you recognize them. And best of all is that Raban doesn't put to fine a point on it. You're left to think--or not--about what transpired, but deeper understanding need not need to replace simple enjoyment unless the reader so desires.

My enjoyment rating: 75 outta 100

Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: October 6, 2005 07:46 AM
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