There are strange doings on the American border, with drug smuggling, human trafficking, and greed galore, while U.S. border agents mount constant patrols in imposing SUVs with high-tech detection gadgetry. This is not the expected border between the United States and Mexico, however. It is the border between the United States and Canada, once a good neighbor land of tranquility suddenly turned into an armed battleground in the wars on terror and drugs in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The bumbling, ill-at-ease border agent possesses enhanced perception that not only allows him to commune with creatures and create art from found objects.
Jim Lynch first visited this transformed borderland in Washington state as a reporter for Portland’s Oregonian and was struck by its unlikely contradictions, excesses and “cultural collisions.” He returned to research this setting for his second novel, the followup to his heralded debut, The Highest Tide, a surprise hit across America and Britain. Lynch rode again with the border patrol, talked with marijuana activists in Vancouver, and interviewed many folks on both sides of the border. The result is Lynch’s enthralling new novel, Border Songs, a startling look at this country’s far Northwest corner with a compelling cast of oddballs. These include the unforgettable Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot-8, dyslexic border-control rookie who grew up on a dairy farm by the border and communicates far better with birds than humans.
The Northwest was once the quirky literary province of Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins, but it has become the focus of a new generation of fiction writers in the region, such notables as David James Duncan, Sherman Alexie, David Guterson, and Jonathan Raban. Lynch—an unassuming 47-year-old Seattle native—is quietly inserting himself at the front ranks of these novelists with his two strong books that drip with sodden Northwest atmosphere, from the fecund Puget Sound tidal flats around Olympia to the fertile dairy country outside Bellingham.
“I think my fascination with this area, compared with these other Northwest writers, is more deeply entrenched in the natural world,” Lynch says on the morning after reading at The Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle’s landmark bookstore. “To me, the Northwest is such an exotic and powerful setting—landscape-wise, lushness-wise, with its mountains, its water, its trees, its life. That is something I want very much to engage and reflect in my books.”
Setting came first for both of Lynch’s novels, with the characters springing from their environs, an appropriately organic growth pattern that led to Miles O’Malley, the diminutive teen naturalist in The Highest Tide, and Vanderkool, the “big galoot” in Border Songs. They are at the opposite ends of the height spectrum, but both Lynch creations share an acute sensitivity to Northwest nature and its abundant creatures. One character captures this in a comment to Vanderkool that could have been addressed to O’Malley: “You see things other people don’t see, don’t you?”
Author Lynch admits to “a little bit” of heightened perception, but has always been drawn to people with an innate ability to shut out the cacophony of hyper-busy life in favor of the quieter symphony of nature. A visit with a record-setting birder from the North Cascades Audubon Society remains one of Lynch’s strongest memories from researching Border Songs. As he recalls, “I walked into the forest with that birder and we both could hear birds singing. But the difference was, he could instantly visualize the eight different species making those songs. That is something most everyone else would be missing.”
That birder encounter was later transformed into a central tenet of Vanderkool’s character. The bumbling, ill-at-ease border agent possesses enhanced perception that not only allows him to commune with creatures and create art from found objects. It also proves invaluable in sensing the presence of border intruders, many involved in smuggling the high-test hothouse marijuana (“B.C. Bud”) that Forbes magazine once dubbed British Columbia’s leading agricultural export. Vanderkool makes a string of arrests that stun border patrol compatriots and townsfolk.
“One of my biggest challenges with Border Songs was figuring out Brandon since he has no interior monologue in the book,” Lynch says. “I wanted to make his differences from other people into strengths for the book, not weaknesses.”
Lynch’s deep empathy for his characters, no matter how off-kilter, is a powerful element in both of his novels. But Border Songs represents a giant stride for the former reporter. The new novel is more complex, with a larger and more divergent cast. It also bears the stamp of a more-prominent literary publisher (Alfred A. Knopf) and a high-profile New York editor (Gary Fisketjon, an Oregon native), as well as the specter of that dreaded bugaboo—“the sophomore novel jinx.” “That didn’t bother me as long as I was writing,” Lynch says, “but I would sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. and worry about that kind of crap.”
For many years, Lynch’s worries were about ever becoming a novelist. He had wanted to write fiction since his college days at the University of Washington, including the summer he worked as a housekeeper in the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park when his main goal was climbing the Grand Tetons. Lynch’s peripatetic newspaper career later took him from Alaska to Virginia to columnist Jack Anderson’s staff in D.C. to another newspaper in Spokane (whose newsroom also spawned novelist Jess Walter, a National Book Award finalist). Lynch moved on to papers in Portland and Seattle and finally became the Oregonian’s roving Northwest correspondent in Olympia, Washington, still his home with his wife, Denise, and their 16-year-old daughter.
Lynch wrote two literary thrillers along the newspaper trail, much influenced by such books as Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog, but only accumulated “flattering rejection notices” from publishers. Lynch finally focused instead on writing Northwest novels that he hoped would reflect what he long admired about Kesey and Robbins—“they captured the wildness of this area and wrote with such fun and abandon.”
When The Highest Tide was finally bought by Bloomsbury, Lynch quit the newspaper business two days later. Providing the usual two weeks’ notice was too much time to waste when finally starting his novelist career.
John Douglas Marshall is the author of Reconciliation Road , an award-winning memoir, and several other nonfiction books. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.