Cover image for Waxwings
Raban, Jonathan.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
281 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published in Great Britain: London : Picador.
Geographic Term:
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Being fixed/mended
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From the best-selling author ofPassage 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. Waxwingsmasterfully 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 Postproclaimed ofForeign Landthat "Jonathan Raban's achievements in this novel are nothing short of awesome," and withWaxwings--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."

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Two disparate characters come together under unusual circumstances in this novel of Seattle during the start-up Internet gold rush of the 1990s. Hungarian-born Tom, a self-absorbed English professor and regular commentator for NPR, finds himself with a floundering marriage and an emotionally disturbed son--two situations he cannot comprehend. Chick is a recent Chinese immigrant who entered the country in a metal container with 30 other men, barely escaping the INS. He finds shady construction work and is dedicated to becoming a successful American citizen, even running his own off-the-books construction business. The two men form an unlikely partnership when Chick appears on Tom's lawn, practically forcing Tom to hire his motley crew to repair Tom's roof. Chick squats in Tom's basement and provides support when Tom is questioned as a suspect in the disappearance of a child. Readers will be intrigued with Chick and his experiences finding work, living quarters, and a legal identity. Slow to start, the story gets up to speed almost halfway through and peters out occasionally until the end. --Kaite Mediatore Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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, 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. (Sept. 30) Forecast: Raban, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, is a Brit expatriate and Seattle resident himself. Waxwings was just shortlisted for the Booker, and should attract considerable attention as the author's first novel in nearly 20 years. Eight-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Acclaimed for his nonfiction (e.g., Bad Land, Passage to Juneau), Raban returns to fiction with a tale set in Seattle. Here, professor and NPR commentator Tom Janeway, a Hungarian-born Englishman, forges a relationship with his handyman, an illegal alien from China. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. From the Trade Paperback edition. Excerpted from Waxwings: A Novel by Jonathan Raban All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.