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Author : Jonathan Raban. First published Collins Harvill, London, 1990.


Jonathan Raban's books are often a mix of three genres - novel, travel chronicle and sailing book. I picked up Hunting Mister Heartbreak again on hearing that a friend was moving to the United States and marvelled at how strongly memorable this book is.

Given that he is not readily typecast, he does have the knack of producing the definitive book of a decade on subjects he tackles, at least in terms of British novelists.

An earlier book, Coasting, is a definitive novel about sailing around Britain in a small boat. It is not in the classic league of Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands, being more an account than a work of fiction, but it is getting close.

Likewise, Hunting Mister Heartbreak could be said to be a definitive pre-internet era guide for emigrants to the United States, viewed from a European perspective.

It starts with a new emigrant, Raban himself, setting sail for the new world, like many a person in history, from Liverpool. Aboard a container ship. His most compelling writing is frequently of his experiences at sea. The sea passage is truly frightening as the giant ship struggles to stay upright on the edge of Hurricane Helene in 45 foot waves. Those that have survived this timeless passage to the new world are irrevocably changed.

After landfall in Halifax, Raban sets down tentative roots in New York, muses on the commercial policy of Macy's, the high cost of high-rise living in Manhattan and the life of a tribe he calls the Street People.

He drives away south from New York and eventually chooses to settle for many months in Alabama. He is widely accepted by the influential in society in his town and, in many ways, his sojurn here is the most soothing part of his travels but echoes of southern history trouble him, too. A dog he borrows delivers high farce at times and his versatility at recording culture wherever he goes shines through.

He chooses eventually to live in Seattle (and has remained there for the following decade), a town close to the sea where he can see himself making a living and sailing. Here, he takes a very close look at the experience of a migrant community, the Koreans, their aspirations, their route to prosperity and the pangs involved in becoming American and taking up the American dream.

A trip to Florida brings the book to a close on the Atlantic coast again where he sails shotgun on a customs patrol boat chasing smugglers through the Keys.

One very much gets the feel that he is the European spectator recording experience. This is a book about becoming American. Yet by the end of the journey he has not become one; the travel writer's detachment is to be found wherever he is, whether in his new homeland or the old.