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Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of…

Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America (1991)

by Jonathan Raban

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Hunting Mr Heartbreak is billed, on the back, as following in the footsteps of an eighteenth-century immigrant to the US, Hector St John de Crèvecœur - Mr Heartbreak. At the start of the book, Jonathan Raban sets sail from Liverpool to New York, following the trail of so many European emigrants before him. During the voyage, he does vividly imagine how it must have been to be crossing the ocean in this great rebirth. He compares the crossing of the "fierce North Atlantic" to fairytale adventures where the heroes had to pass through the terrifying zone of the forest in order to have adventures and win treasures.

Many of the passengers must have been carrying precious addresses whose place-names gave away the fundamental unreality of America. Could anyone really live in a town called Fertile? Eureka? Promise City? Eden? Harmony? ... The map of the United States was dotted all over with fantasies and fictions. These ludic names belonged to the landscape of allegory, not real life.

Unfortunately, once Raban arrives in the US, we never really hear any more about the eighteenth-century migrants, and the book turns into much more conventional travel writing - although the theme of migration does recur subtly throughout.

Raban spends two months each in New York, a small Alabama town, Seattle and the Florida Keys. In each place he invents a new personality for himself (John Rayburn in Alabama, Rainbird in Seattle, after mis-hearings of his name). And in each place, his observations have a different focus. For example, the section on New York contrasts the way that it took in a motley group of migrants and turned them into Americans with the late-1980s stratification.

There are many acute observations about the America he sees - but unfortunately, these are mixed in with pot-shots at easy targets and some quite uninspired passages. It's all the more frustrating because you know that he is capable of better. For example, at one point Raban segues from a riff on how bad airline food is (yawn) to a really interesting analysis of the impact of air travel on the way that Americans perceive their own country. My favourite section, apart from the Atlantic crossing, was the description of Seattle, and in particular the way that Raban used the Korean community there to illustrate the way that the American dream plays out in the narratives of immigrant communities.

Sample: Like Tim, the high school students betrayed their anxiety that the world in which they lived was not as real as places where they'd never been. New York was real, California was real; but Guntersville lay beyond the pale of reality as it was laid down by imaginary Hollywood producers and imaginary Manhattan literary agents. ... It seemed to me that the town was very seriously in need of a fiction to give it a keener sense of its own reality.

Recommended for: fans of travel writing, who might be more prepared than me to forgive the less inspired bits. ( )
1 vote wandering_star | Jan 9, 2011 |
Thanks for the review of Hunting Mr Heartbreak. I just picked it up at a thrift shop, but with no context dipping into it could not really figure if out. I will certainly read it.
  carterchristian1 | Sep 2, 2010 |
This book is showing its age a little bit, as Jonathan Raban visited America about the time Michael Dukakis was running for President in 1988. Still, I'm a sucker for travel books like this and I had just finished another of Raban's books (Passage to Juneau) and I find Raban's ideas and approach to a book of this kind interesting. I especially enjoyed reading about his time in the Huntsville, Alabama area. I've spent a bit of time there as well, and he expresses what it was like for me about as well as anyone could. I still don't understand the last 50 pages, which describe a short trip to the Florida Keys. This must have been extra material that couldn't find a place in his other books. A strange way to end what had--up to then--been an enjoyable look at familiar country by an observant foreigner. ( )
  co_coyote | Feb 16, 2009 |
Inspired by the 1782 account of the immigrant experience by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur ("Heartbreak" in English), the author attempts to retrace some of Crèvecoeur's travels, while experiencing America from the viewpoint of underdogs and immigrants.

Raban (an Englishman who now lives in Seattle) can write! If anyone ever makes a movie from one of his books, I will not see it, because no movie could match the imagery Raban conveys. I can never decide whether "Heartbreak" or "Bad Land" is my favorite work by Raban; I have read this one more than once. ( )
  oregonobsessionz | Dec 30, 2007 |
Raban captures the absolute essence of the American South (Guntersville, Alabama) in this story. ( )
  Aetatis | Nov 26, 2005 |
Showing 5 of 5
Too jaundiced to overlook the instances of violence, greed, and indifference in the Reagan-Bush era, he is also swept along by ``the continuous motion of life in the United States, the striving and becoming.'' And the characters he meets along the way-a Liberian hoping for his own travel agency, a Korean owner of an auto repair shop, an old friend who's taken to shipping drugs in Key West-vividly illustrate the still-seductive allure of a new life in the New World. No Whitmanesque sentimentality here, but a jaunty, perceptive, and remarkably assured report on the American Dream today.
added by John_Vaughan | editKirkus Review (Jul 14, 1991)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037570101X, Paperback)

A New York Times Notable Book

"In an era of jet tourism, [Jonathan Raban] remains a
traveler-adventurer in the tradition of  .  .  .  Robert Louis Stevenson."
--The New York Times Book Review

In 1782 an immigrant with the high-toned name J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur--"Heartbreak" in English--wrote a pioneering account of one European's transformation into an American. Some two hundred years later Jonathan Raban, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, arrived in Crèvecoeur's wake to see how America has paid off for succeeding generations of newcomers. The result is an exhilarating, often deliciously funny book that is at once a travelogue, a social history, and a love letter to the United States.
        In the course of Hunting Mr. Heartbreak, Raban passes for homeless in New York and tries to pass for a good ol' boy in Alabama (which entails "renting" an elderly black lab). He sees the Protestant work ethic perfected by Korean immigrants in Seattle--one of whom celebrates her new home as "So big! So green! So wide-wide-wide!"--and repudiated by the lowlife of Key West.  And on every page of this peerlessly observant work, Raban makes us experience America with wonder, humor, and an unblinking eye for its contradictions.

"Raban delivers himself of some of the most memorable prose ever written
about urban America." --Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times

"When Raban describes America and Americans, he is unfailingly witty
and entertaining." --Salman Rushdie

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:46 -0400)

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