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.
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