Canadians love his new book, set on their southern border, and readers in the Pacific Northwest are discovering Olympia writer Jim Lynch, who just could be the best new novelist in the region since David Guterson rolled out Snow Falling on Cedars in 1995.
Lynch is an unassuming former newspaper reporter who has set his first two books in small-town or rural communities and focused them on indelible characters with rare abilities to see things others don't, leading to some hilarious and often insightful moments.
The Highest Tide, Lynch's debut novel in 2005, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and became a best seller in regional independent bookstores. Lynch's second offering, Border Songs, came out June 16 and is already big in the same stores; after only a week on the shelves it was ranked fourth in fiction sales by regional independent booksellers.
The Highest Tide was set in a small neighborhood on the very southernmost part of Puget Sound near Olympia; Border Songs covers an area of several miles along both sides of the international border, between Blaine and Lynden.
Lynch drew about 150 people to a reading and interview on Bellingham's Chuckanut Radio Hour on June 30, and told me he was pleasantly surprised by his reception in Canada, where he did 17 media interviews in Vancouver alone. "Canadians really liked the idea that an American author was writing about Canada," Lynch found, adding that in Toronto he found interviewers enjoying some of his humor at British Columbia's relationship with cross-border trafficking.
In Border Songs, Lynch brings us Brandon Vanderkool, a profoundly dyslexic 23-year-old Border Patrol agent who, "claimed to be six-six because that was all the height most people could fathom, he was actually a quarter inch over six-eight-and not a spindly six-eight either, but 232 pounds of meat and bone stacked vertically beneath a lopsided smile and a defiant wedge of hair that gave him the appearance of an unfinished sculpture." Brandon is a reluctant agent but happy to be off the family dairy farm, and is often oblivious to his duties while engaging in his passion of birdwatching.
Strange and wondrous things happen to Brandon, including flying and bumptious captures of smugglers and aliens and a hilarious seduction scene with his supervisor, a horny divorcee with a short bed. Along the way, dairymen struggle with declining milk prices and sick cows, tempted to turn a fast buck by looking the other way while drugs cross their pastures en route to American cities; and Brandon's would-be girlfriend gets over her head dealing with Canadian drug profiteers. The book is a romp, but it also exposes serious issues along the border, having less to do with post-9/11 terrorism than the greed of smugglers and drug cartels.
Lynch's look at the border began shortly before 9/11 when, as a regional reporter for The Oregonian, he looked at the disparate drug cultures of the U.S. and Canada. After 9/11 he spent more time along the border, riding with Border Patrol agents and getting acquainted with locals, including birder Joe Meche, whom he credits with the avian expertise shown in the text. Border Patrol agents "were more forthcoming" when Lynch quit reporting for fiction, and provided the grist for several of the fictional chases in the book.
Border Songs drew a rave review from an author well-known for writing about the U.S.-Canada border, Howard Frank Mosher,, author of North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland, 1997. "Border Songs is a masterwork, and Jim Lynch, for my money, is our best new storyteller since Larry McMurtry: deeply in touch with the natural world, the absurdities of our era, and the hearts and minds of his unforgettable and endlessly surprising characters," Mosher wrote for Elliott Bay Books.
It is the connection with nature, and the ability to see things most people miss, that places Lynch's key characters above the ordinary. As Brandon Vanderkool knows birds, so does Miles O'Malley know marine life in The Highest Tide. Miles is an endearing character, a 13-year-old a couple of feet shorter than Brandon, a socially awkward and nerdish kid coming of age along the tidal flats of the South Sound. Like Brandon, Miles becomes a local celebrity through his powers of observation.
Lynch rolled the dice with The Highest Tide, resigning his newspaper job when the book was published, and settling in to fulltime writing. As a reporter, in 1995 he won the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, for a series he wrote for the Spokane Spokesman-Review on the patriot movement in northeast Washington and northern Idaho. Lynch, 47, also worked with Jack Anderson's investigative team in Washington D.C. and for The Seattle Times. He is a native of the Seattle area — he plans to set his next book in Seattle — and lives near Olympia with his wife and daughter.
The Highest Tide has sold as many books in the United Kingdom as in the United States, thanks to exposure on a popular television book club in London. The book has also been adapted for the stage, and is now published in 11 foreign markets.
With The Highest Tide, Lynch discovered that he had created in 13-year-old Miles what he called "a throwback." Lynch wrote for the Powell's Books Website:
I didn't dwell on how unusual it would be for a modern teenager to not only be obsessed with nature but to have the freedom to explore it. Yet readers soon let me know it rarely happens anymore, which made me realize that despite setting the novel near the present day, my child star, Miles, is a throwback. Listening to readers age nine to ninety has made it clear that while more children than ever know about the importance of protecting the environment, a shrinking percentage actually experience it or have any personal relationship with it.
I'm pleased that indoorsy people seem to enjoy The Highest Tide as much as outdoorsy people. Yet listening to readers has been disconcerting. It sounds as if the environment has turned into some abstraction — like liberty or justice — to protect. It seems like the notion of kids routinely exploring and experiencing nature on their own is nostalgia.
It is those connections of humans and nature, as well as the compelling personalities of the major characters, that take Lynch's first books beyond the category of "good read."
With Border Songs, Lynch made the leap to the prestigious A.A. Knopf/Doubleday publishing group (his first book was with Bloomsbury Publishing, a smaller but also high-quality press), expanding his exposure to major reviewers, both in this country and internationally. At Knopf, Lynch gained one of the trade's best editors, Knopf Vice President and Editor-at-Large Gary Fisketjon, a legendary figure in publishing. "Gary really went after him," says Fisketjon friend Chuck Robinson of Bellingham's Village Books, "He read The Highest Tide and was just delighted with the book."
Northwest reviewers and readers seem to be delighted as well. Lynch could be the next big name in the region's small pantheon of best-selling authors.
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