Journalist to Novelist – Jim Lynch Book List
When I first read that Jim Lynch was going to publish a novel, I thought, hmmmm, we’ll see. Jim is a former newspaper reporter – he worked for a time at my own newspaper, the Seattle Times. Journalists, even the finest ones, often have a hard time making the transition from reporting the facts to, well, making things up.
He made the leap. Jim Lynch’s first published novel, The Highest Tide, was a delight. I’ve been reading him with great pleasure ever since.
The Highest Tide tells the story of Miles O’Malley, an unusual sort of 13-year-old boy.
Miles lives on South Puget Sound, also the setting for Before the Wind. Miles loves everything about the ocean, and is never happier than when he is exploring the shores of Puget Sound and examining its abundant marine life.
Then Miles discovers a giant squid, the tabloid newspapers get hold of the story and his life is turned upside down.
This book enabled Lynch to draw two on two worlds he knows well – that of natural world, and of the mass media and how it works (he probably knew a thing or two about thirteen-year-old boys too).
In this book the press, eager to keep the story rolling, portray Miles as a sort of child sage/savant. People start flocking to Miles in search of advice, healing and other help Miles is not equipped to give.
The Highest Tide is a great portrait of an adolescent boy with a less-than-perfect family, struggling to find his own place. Combined with Lynch’s gift for characterization, his wry sense of humor and his sense of place, it was a stellar debut. This book was marketed for adults, but I know some teenagers who read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I liked Lynch’s next novel, Border Song, even better.
Border Song is the story of Brandon Vanderkool, a six-foot-eight dyslexic young man who lives in northwest Washington state. If you haven’t been there, let me just say it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth – verdant farmland, snow-capped mountains, the Pacific Ocean just a stone’s throw away. Lynch outdid himself describing the wild places where Brandon is most comfortably himself.
This area is also just a stone’s throw from the U.S. – Canada border, and that’s where this story takes off. It’s after 9-11 and the U.S. is in the grip of fear of terrorists, so the U.S. Border Patrol is bulking up its ranks. Somehow, Brandon gets a job. Believe me, there was never a less likely border patrol agent.
The plot focuses on illegal marijuana smuggling, a time-honored way of doing business in this part of the world, but it’s not a cops and robbers story. The ensemble of characters in this novel – Brandon’s family, his fellow agents, the small-time smugglers who try to slip through the back pastures of dairy farms – are well-meaning, goofy and sometimes clueless, and Lynch’s wonderful sense of humor shines. But the real gift of this novel is – again – Lynch’s portrayal of nature, as seen through the eyes of Brandon. You’ll want to hop the next plane to this beautiful place.
For his next novel, Lynch tried something different. Truth Like the Sun is set in Seattle in the early 1960s, and it tells a story based on the event that put Seattle on the national map – the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
Roger Morgan is a civic impresario/political fixer – every town has at least one, a person determined to elevate the profile of his city and raise his own in the process. He’s a key force behind the Seattle fair, an event that began the city’s transition from a sleepy mid-sized town into an international Pacific Rim city. The novel is great at portraying early 1960s Seattle, and the people, from Ed Sullivan to Elvis, who passed through town.
The story fast-forwards to post 2001. Roger, long the unofficial mayor of Seattle, has decided to run for the actual position. In his 70s, he’s still a charm machine. Unfortunately for Roger, Helen, a young woman reporter new to town, begins to sense whiffs of corruption around the fair that made some people very, very rich as the town went through wholesale redevelopment. Is Roger tainted? Again, Lynch’s knowledge of the way journalism works informs the story.
Truth Like the Sun was a great read, but I missed the immersion in nature of Lynch’s previous books, and was glad when he got back to the sights and smells of Puget Sound in his latest book, Before the Wind.
To round out my list, I’m going to recommend a couple of books by another author from the Pacific Northwest – David Guterson.
Guterson is the author of the classic Snow Falling on Cedars. That was his first published novel, but he went on to publish several more. I have a couple of favorites. Lynch and Guterson are certainly different kinds of writers, but Guterson shares with Lynch a gift for great characters, an interest in misfits and a way of writing about place that grabs you and doesn’t let go.
Guterson’s novel Our Lady of the Forest, published in the early 2000s, is an unusual book with an unsettling story. Ann Holmes is a teenaged runaway who winds up in the damp, dark, Northwest woods and sees a vision of the Virgin Mary there. Soon pilgrims are descending on this out-of-the-way place, and all kinds of complications ensue.
Guterson’s premise allows him to portray a number of unforgettable characters – ex-loggers bitter at the loss of their livelihood, people longing for faith, any kind of faith. And that forest – drip, drip, drip. You will want to wear a raincoat and hand warmers while reading this excellent book, one that looks deep into issues of faith and meaning.
Another Guterson book that I really liked, also partially set in the Northwestern rain forest, is The Other.
This is the story of two friends – the narrator, Neil Countryman and his friend, John William Barry. It’s set in Seattle and the surrounding area.
John William is from a wealthy Seattle family; Countryman’s background is “blue collar, lunch pail.” The reader learns early on that John William has died and has left Neil, a high school teacher, a great deal of money.
Through their lives, they had become fast friends, and Neil learned what a troubled soul his wealthy, entitled friend really was. Eventually John William becomes a recluse, and Neil, who has married and is leading a satisfying, if conventional life, becomes his only contact, ferrying food and other survival items to his brilliant, alienated friend, who has retreated to the remotest regions of Olympic National Park.
The Other is a wonderful portrait of several things; male friendship, the spectacular Pacific Northwest rain forest and the necessary compromises we make in becoming an adult. It’s a terrific novel, and I’m putting it on my to-be-read-again list.