Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover? The startling image of flocking birds that wraps around Jim Lynch’s rambunctious second novel, Border Songs, is a near-perfect analogue for the setting, subject and narrative energy of the story inside.
The image comes from a recent painting by Walton Ford, Lynch says during a call from his home in Olympia, Washington. Lynch lives there with his wife, who teaches English as a second language, and their 16-year-old daughter. The watery environs near his home inspired Lynch’s well-regarded first novel, The Highest Tide, whose pint-sized 13-year-old narrator relates the outsized adventures of a formative summer at the water’s edge. Lynch composed Border Songs, set along the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state, in a “mini private-eye office”—complete with a frosted glass door, but minus Internet or phone service—in one of the oldest office buildings in Olympia.
Lynch says setting and a sense of place are important hallmarks of both his novels. “To write about western Washington and not have the kind of lushness [represented in the painting] seems almost impossible to do,” he adds, then notes that his publisher thinks the book cover will “be one of those what the hell!? kinds of covers that you just have to pick up.”
And why not? Viewed from a certain angle, the cover even mirrors the deft comedic exaggeration that makes Border Songs such a lively read. Nowhere is that quality more evident than in the character of Brandon Vanderkool, the hulking, sweet-souled, rookie U.S. Border Patrol agent who is the protagonist of Border Songs and who just happens to have some very unusual abilities.
“I didn’t start out to make a six-feet-eight dyslexic 23-year-old guy who is into landscape art and who is really into birds the central character of the book,” Lynch says. “I actually started out on a kind of writer’s dare. My protagonist in The Highest Tide is just four-feet-eight, and I’m a short guy myself, so I was thinking, OK, I can write tall. I’m going to make this guy six-feet-eight. The more I thought about it, the more it amused me to have a character who was unusually tall. Then I started giving him abilities that matched the extremeness of his size.”
Brandon, it seems, has always been the weird Harold of the small farming community along the Washington-British Columbia border where he grew up and now patrols amid post-9/11 border tensions. But, in one of the wonderful comic twists of the novel, the same strange affinities with birds and art that alienated him from his classmates during his youth, now make Brandon unwittingly—and uncannily—successful as a Border Patrol agent. With every wrong turn or seeming blunder, he ends up apprehending a drug smuggler or undocumented alien, exciting the interest of superiors and congressional committees, the surprise of his father, a local dairy farmer, and the bemused envy of fellow officers.
Alas, no similar happy twist of fate immediately lifts Brandon’s quest for the heart of Madeleine Rousseau, the girl from 50 or so feet across the border who had been one of Brandon’s rare childhood friends but is now a rookie girl-gone-bad in the British Columbia pot-exporting business.
“I’m either drawn to or fascinated with reckless women,” Lynch says. “All of my characters are trying to squeeze more out of life. But Madeleine is trying to find something well outside the norm. She’s in trouble and she’s gone awry and Brandon senses that, although he’s clueless about what to do about it.”
Around the charged relationship between Brandon and Madeleine, Lynch populates his story with a motley, engaging, vividly drawn assemblage of Border Patrol agents, national politicians, local dairy farmers, parents, children, Canadian pot dealers, illegal aliens and even a few potential terrorists. Lynch spent 15 years working as a reporter, including a stint as a political reporter in Washington, D.C., and he tells his story with remarkably clear prose punctuated by a sort of well-informed wink at the ridiculous attitudes on both sides of the border.
“When I was at the The Oregonian I went up and hung out in the pot cafes in British Columbia and wrote about their whole marijuana culture,” Lynch says, highlighting the wellsprings of the novel. “They would tell me that the whole problem with America is that we’re euphoria-phobic. They have a guy who calls himself the Prince of Pot and who likes to get arrested smoking huge joints out in front of police stations. The self-righteous audaciousness of that struck me as a fun contrast to our drug czar, get-tough-on-marijuana policy,” he says.
“When I was riding around with the Border Patrol I kept noticing all the birds. Border guards spend so much time spitting sunflower seeds, chewing tobacco and moseying around doing nothing that I thought having a birding Border Patrol guard would actually make sense . . . . [Besides,] the border guards weren’t catching a lot of illegals—your basic job-seeking illegals. But they were intercepting huge amounts of BC [British Columbia] bud. They would take me into the rooms where they stored these huge bags of marijuana and they were like teenagers with the big buds in their hands, aping for the camera,” Lynch recalls. “It was just goofy and it struck me that here was this little-known battlefront in the war on terror and the war on drugs with great comic potential.”
Lynch concludes, “We go through these absurd cycles from hyper paranoia about the border to forgetting it’s even there to ramping up and getting tough on Canada as a potential menace. To me there’s a nonsensical dynamic to the way we guard our border with our peaceful neighbors to the north, and a certain absurdity to the way we wage our war on drugs and our war on terror. If that seeps through to the reader as I describe life on the border, so much the better.”
Lynch’s provocative critique of U.S. border policies does indeed seep through Border Songs, but, thankfully, it wafts on the breeze of a warm-hearted guffaw.
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.