Waxwings

Waxwings

by Jonathan Raban

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Overview

Jonathan Raban’s powerful novel is set in Seattle in 1999, at the height of its infatuation with the virtual. It’s a place that attracts immigrants. One of these is Tom Janeway, a bookish Hungarian-born Englishman who makes his living commenting on American mores on NPR. Another, who calls himself Chick, is a frenetically industrious illegal alien from China who makes his living any way he can.

Through a series of extraordinary but chillingly plausible events, the paths of these newcomers converge. Tom is uprooted from his marriage and must learn to father his endearing eight-year old son part-time. Chick claws his way up from exploited to exploiter. Meanwhile Seattle is troubled by rioting anarchists, vanishing children, and the discovery of an al-Qaeda operative; it is a city on the brink. Savage and tender, visionary and addictively entertaining, Waxwings is a major achievement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375709050
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,230,055
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

The author of ten previous books, Jonathan Raban was born in England and since 1990 has lived in Seattle. His honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, and the Governor's Award of the State of Washington.

Hometown:

Seattle, Washington

Date of Birth:

June 14, 1942

Place of Birth:

Norfolk, England

Read an Excerpt

1.



"November," the pilot said.

Wave-crests were breaking gray on a sea as black as crêpe. 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."

"Sorry?"

"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?"

"A cougar."

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."

"How?"

"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.

"Yeah, he's taking it hard. He was on a Korean bulk carrier outbound from Tacoma when it happened, and they broke it to him when he came off in the launch. Captain Nielsen, he's an older man—"

No older than me, the captain thought.

"—he lived for that kid, after his divorce. When he wasn't at work, he spent all his time around at his son's place, babysitting. It was kind of a joke with us, Doug and his babysitting."

"I didn't know he was divorced."

"He never talked about it. Wife left him two, three years back, and went down to live in Santa Barbara. Or Santa Fe. Santa someplace. His son's a realtor—got an office out on Highway 101. But now that Ashley has passed on—"

Passed on? Hunched over the wheel, looking out into the dark, the Captain was picturing the animal, a tawny shape-shifter, padding soundlessly through damp leaf mulch, and the child, talking to herself, absorbed in her play. "Passing on" was not the phrase he would've chosen for what was going to happen next. Though he didn't know Doug Nielsen well, he could feel his grief as a distinct hollow in his own gut, and didn't at all care for the young pilot's manner, in which there was a trace of something close, almost, to amusement.

"Coffee's up." It was the Third Officer. The Captain took his mug from the tray with a distracted grunt. "We're talking about Doug Nielsen," he said.

"Doug the pilot?"

"He lost his little granddaughter. The funeral was today."

"It was an accident waiting to happen," the pilot said. "When we logged the old-growth, we degraded that whole habitat. Now we're into third-growth, and a third-growth plantation just doesn't have the sustenance these critters need. By the end of summer, they're starving, so they come into the cities to scavenge—you can't blame them for doing what they need to survive. When you get cougars killing kids in schoolyards, it's a wake-up call." He peered for a moment into the hooded radar. "It's a wake-up call," he repeated, rolling the phrase as if he'd just minted it.

"That's how she died?" the Third Officer said. "A cougar?"

"And it's not just out on the Peninsula—it's happening right in Seattle. They've got cougars in Issaquah, garbage-bears in Woodinville. Around this time of year, the local news starts looking like 'Animal Planet,' with everybody shooting home videos of the wildlife in their yards. People used to get a thrill out of seeing a raccoon, but nowadays you're talking bobcats, skunks, black bears . . . critters that ought to be out hunting in the mountains. Instead, they're living out of trash-cans and Dumpsters in the 'burbs. You got the fairway buoy there, Cap.? There's a whole new generation of animals that's being raised on left-over pizza and burgers and fries."

The buoy was a cat's-eye flash of yellow in the darkness. At half speed, lying low on its lines, heavy with cargo, the Pacific Auriga made a wide turn to starboard.

"One-two-zero."

"One-two-zero."

As the ship slid southeastward into the gullet of Puget Sound, the Third Officer watched the radar painting echoes on the screen. He could put names to the echoes—Wilson, Marrowstone, Bush, Double Bluff—now that the ship was coming into familiar water. Familiar water, but queer land. Though he'd never given much attention to the perils of the sea, the Third Officer was horribly alert to the perils of the countryside. When he saw green fields, he instinctively thought of pawing bulls. A spell of shore leave at his sister's house outside Brisbane had been turned into agony by a casual warning about spiders in the toilet.

This had been a rough trip, dogged by small misfortunes of timing and weather, and he'd been looking forward to his layover in Seattle. But even though he meant to go no further from the ship than a ten-dollar cab ride (split with the Radio Officer), the thought of wild bears stalking the suburbs upset him greatly. To fight his phobia, he was forever telling himself that his fears were irrational—but that would cut no ice now, not in this city.

"Take your urban coyotes—" the pilot said.

Please, let's don't, the Third Officer thought.

"They're interbreeding with the domestic canids. Take a look at the dogs around here—at their jaws and the way they carry their tails. You'd be surprised by how many of them are half-coyote. You're getting German shepherd-coyote mixes, lab-coyote mixes, collie-coyote mixes . . . and you wouldn't want to meet these guys on a dark night, I'm telling you."

On the water, the copper-colored land mass was squeezing in around the ship. Bush Point nicked the one-and-a-half-mile ring, though its light failed to show in the thick weather. Gazing into the dark, the Third Officer populated the invisible coast with wild and vicious beasts and felt a pang of homesickness for the tame streets of Stoke-on-Trent, where his parents lived, and where, touch wood, he'd be back in time for Christmas. His mum and dad always expected stories from him—an expectation he could rarely satisfy. But now he had a story to tell them over the Christmas pud and brandy butter.


In the house on Queen Anne Hill, the wind rattled the panes of the sash window in the bathroom where Finn was in the tub, decorating his upper lip and chin with gobs of fleecy foam.

"Where's Daddy?"

"He's out to dinner with a friend of his. From England."

"Ho, ho, ho!" Finn said in his deep Santa Claus voice.

"He won't be back till after you're asleep," Beth said from behind the green dinosaur towel she was sniffing, which smelled not unpleasantly of Finn, old soap, and chlorine from the public pool. It was Tom's turn to do the laundry—as she'd remind him with a Post-it note on the fridge.

"You know what?" In a movement that a yogi would have found hard to emulate, Finn lifted his right leg from the water and brought his foot close to his face for inspection.

"What, pumpkin?"

Squinting between his toes, he said, "I've been thinking."

"What have you been thinking?"

"It's a problem. Where would I be if I wasn't here?"

"You mean here in this house?"

"No." Finn studied his pink sole, frowning impatiently. "Where would I be if I wasn't here?"

"I don't know." Beth had been fighting a headache all afternoon, and a pile of work was waiting in her laptop downstairs. "Where would you be?"

"I wouldn't have a brain if I wasn't here." For a split second, Finn's face looked as it did when a hamster or a gerbil died, crumpling inwards like a dynamited building, but this time it crumpled into a fit of the giggles. He sat in the tub, engrossed in some huge private joke, idly popping bubbles with his forefinger.

Beth sat on the closed lid of the toilet and put on her largest, most reassuringly maternal smile. "Is this something you think about a lot, pumpkin?"

"What?"

"Like where you'd be if you weren't here?"

"Oh, I think about it all the time." Finn went on popping bubbles. "My toenails are too long."

As people said, Finn had his father's hair—not Tom's thinning, white-pepper Jewfro, but a thornbush of tight dark curls that made him easy to spot in the preschool swarm. It was a nagging worry to Beth that, along with the hair, Finn had inherited the mind that went with it.

Tom had a Jewfro without being Jewish, and a British accent without being British—at least not exactly. He wasn't Hungarian, though he was born there, and living in the United States certainly hadn't turned him into anything remotely resembling an American. It was his unplaceability—or, as she saw it now, his existential vagueness—that had so attracted her when they first met. He was like no-one she had ever known. The trouble was that after eight years Beth still had days when she didn't quite know who Tom was. When she saw stories about women who'd been unknowingly married to men who turned out to be mild-mannered spies or serial killers, she instinctively understood how that could be.

Clipping Finn's toenails, she saw out of the corner of her eye that he was playing with his penis. She pretended not to notice, then saw that he'd caught her out and was watching her, slyly, with the funny, lopsided smile that was a copy of his father's. "Finn Janeway!" She stood up, spreading wide the dinosaur towel. "Come on. Out of the bath!"

"I'm not Finn Janeway," he said. "I'm Finn Szany."

She wished Tom hadn't told him that. "They're the same name, silly. 'Janeway' was just the way they said Szany in England."

"No it's not. It's different. Szany, Szany, Szany, Szany! I'm Finn Szany!"

She plucked him from the tub and bundled him into the towel.

"Can I have a cookie now?"

Later, after she'd read him a chapter of Otis Spofford, she lay with Finn under the covers in his bunk bed, listening to the house creak and grumble in the wind. Pitched high on the hill and facing south, it was exposed to the full blast of winter gales as they came barreling up Puget Sound. When the wind got under the eaves, it made owlish whoo-whooing noises, and Beth could hear it prowling through the junk in the attic. They needed to call in a roofer or one day soon the whole damn thing was going to fly right off—and the roof was only one of a hundred things that needed fixing.

Beth habitually thought of the house as more Tom's than hers. It was old and cranky, the southward tilt of the floors so pronounced that a ball of Finn's would roll from one end of the house to the other across warped boards of varnished fir. In three small earthquakes—mild premonitions of the promised Big One—she'd felt and heard the massive timber pilings grind deep in the shaly dirt of the basement, sounding like the teeth-on-wood gnawing of a tribe of super-rats. The floors rippled, books fell from their shelves and pictures off their hooks. A long S-shaped crack appeared in the plaster of the bathroom wall. After each earthquake, the balls rolled a little faster. "It's just settlement," Tom had said, but to her it felt more like progressive collapse.

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Waxwings 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set very solidly in Seattle, about a guy with an ordinary life who gets falsely accused, and his growing relationship with a Chinese guy fixing his house, and lessening relationship with his wife. Much better than I've made it sound - great characters.
alic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a well-written description of Seattle during the heady dot-com era
Guest More than 1 year ago
Yeah, I was suprised of how much I liked this book. It was well written and I liked a majority of the characters. Johnathan Raban has written a very good novel and is worth the time. You should get a copy today.