February 16, 1987 12:00 PM

by Jonathan Raban

Raban is an original, thought-provoking, entertaining observer of the contemporary scene. He arrives at his opinions by becoming a participant. He joins coal miners on the picket lines so that he can understand—and then describe—what their protest means. He detaches himself physically, by sailing offshore, so that he can better observe what is happening to Great Britain. While he’s there, the war with Argentina breaks out, and he is dismayed by his country’s behavior. Indeed, he is an unrelenting critic of Mrs. Thatcher and the current trends in his homeland. The title of this book is applied to all possible meanings of the word: The author buys a boat, learns to sail and tours the coastal towns of Britain; fathers accuse sons of “coasting” through school, through life; the nation, economically and spiritually, is a mess, coasting, feeding off past glories and tourists attracted to a Great Britain that no longer exists. These are the concerns of the author of Old Glory: An American Voyage and Foreign Land. Raban is a solid travel writer. His descriptive prose is right on the button: “The wind was coming in feeble dog breaths off the land, and the sea outside the harbor was riddled with curlicues of morning mist.” He can be very funny when he describes encounters such as the lunch with writer Paul Theroux, a friend, who is also doing a book on the coastal towns of Great Britain. Their wariness—who is going to steal whose material—is palpable and ridiculous. But Raban can also be sublime, as in his tribute to the late poet Philip Larkin, who showed how “(a life from which most people would shrink in panic) could be managed with, if not quite gaiety, at least great dignity and grace.” Coasting is a rewarding, glowing book of such insights and revelations. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)

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