Pity Jim Lynch. High expectations have followed “The Highest Tide.”
The Olympia author’s 2005 debut novel featured protagonist Miles O’Malley, an undersized 13-year-old who, while developmentally more innocent than most of his peers, also was more attuned to the natural world than anyone around him. The book was quirky, lyrical and environmentally resonant. It quickly became a best-seller, was translated into 11 languages, and was adapted as a play.
So, no pressure, Mr. Lynch, but what do you do as a follow-up?
The answer comes this month with the much-anticipated publication of Lynch’s new novel, “Border Songs.”
The protagonist is Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot, 8-inch giant of a 23-year-old who, while developmentally more innocent than most of his peers, also is more attuned to the natural world than anyone around him.
(Why mess with a formula that works?)
Brandon grew up on a dairy farm outside Blaine. Although he is socially inept (among other things, he jumbles the word order in his sentences when he gets excited or upset), he is a veritable Dr. Doolittle, with an affinity for the cows on his dad’s farm, and a passion for birds of all types. He also creates artistic forms out of natural objects, la Andy Goldsworthy.
And, in the post-9/11 era of the “war on terror,” Brandon has managed to land a day job, too. He is a fledgling member of the beefed-up Border Patrol. Since he grew up locally, he knows the terrain well. Heck, the back ditch of his dad’s farm runs along the 49th parallel. Furthermore, the lifetime Brandon has spent noticing things that other people don’t leads to an uncanny knack for discerning illegal stowaways and contraband.
He does all this in a community filled with eccentrics that might have been spawned by “Northern Exposure”: Brandon’s tough-as-nails trainer, Dionne, and other irascible colleagues on the BP; his chronically forgetful mother and dairyman/dreamer dad; a mysterious masseuse; and the proverbial girl next door, who in this case is a Canadian involved in a major pot-growing operation.
With this unlikely hero and his supporting cast of odd ducks, author Lynch spins a tale that investigates how political posturing from on high affects the common folk, skewering the attitudes and cringe-worthy jingoism of the post-9/11 paranoia. The book looks, too, at the “war on drugs” with a quizzical and somewhat flippant eye.
Lynch also takes pokes at real estate development, casinos, illegal immigration and 21st-century farming concerns, while the celebration of the natural world in general and birds in particular is a constant throughout the book.
These contemplations, wrapped in Lynch’s signature lyricism, are punctuated with laugh-out-loud moments. But the ambitious scope of the commentary is simply too much for this novel to bear. Characters lose purpose and story lines get frazzled. The ending, even as portrayed through Lynch’s absurdist lens, is simply too pat.
“Border Songs” is a noble effort, but not all noble efforts succeed.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.