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Border Songs by Jim Lynch

Mary Ann Gwinn
The Seattle Times (MCT)

A fable of innocence lost with one of the most remarkable characters created by a Northwest author in recent memory.

Border Songs

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 304 pages
Author: Jim Lynch
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-06

Brandon Vanderkool is a U.S. Border Patrol agent, a 6-foot-8-inch nature boy who tromps and stomps across northern Whatcom County, Washingon, in search of illegal immigrants, marijuana smugglers, terrorists and birds (though not necessarily in that order).

As I read his story in Border Songs, Jim Lynch's new novel, Brandon kept reminding me of someone. Maybe it was Sissy Hankshaw, that beautiful anarchist with huge thumbs of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls get the Blues. Or Chief Bromden, the big silent Indian in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Maybe even the mythical Paul Bunyan, who created Mount Hood by piling rocks on his campfire to snuff it out.

All these larger-than-life characters are variations on Rousseau's noble savage, great Northwest version, children of a region that's been losing its innocence since George Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound. Border Songs is a fable of innocence lost, or at least misplaced, and Brandon is one of the most remarkable characters created by a Northwest author in recent memory.

Brandon is as Northwest as moss on a stump. The dyslexic home-schooled son of a Whatcom County dairy farmer, he would love nothing better than to stay home and help his father tend the cows, but the dairy has fallen on hard times. So he gets a job in the regional growth industry -- the U.S. Border Patrol -- ushering the reader into a vivid tutorial of what the formerly hazy, indefinite division between two North American giants has become.

In Lynch's telling, the porous line between the US and Canada has become a wild and woolly transit point for illegal immigrants, suicidal terrorists and tons of "B.C. Bud", marijuana grown north of the border and sold south of it, bristling with antagonism, paranoia and surveillance cameras.

Border Songs is worth the purchase price for its portrayal of high-stakes marijuana smuggling: dairy farmers who find enormous wads of cash in their mailboxes in exchange for turning a blind eye to midnight smugglers. Marijuana bazaars in Abbotsford, B.C., split-levels where the host, girded with a cummerbund embroidered with a marijuana leaf, hawks his wares, as naked painted ladies drift through.

Subterranean tunnels. Helicopter drop-offs. Nighttime sailing runs across Semiahmoo Bay.

Stanching this contraband deluge are Brandon and his fellow agents and to put it mildly, Brandon is the unlikeliest of the group. Here's his fellow agent McAfferty, as he discusses Brandon's bizarre success rate in apprehending illegal immigrants:

Great kid. Wouldn't want to stand close to him in a lighting storm. Rarely... wears a gun, which is probably good, considering he might be the worst shot we've ever had ... what's worse is he's as gullible as a twelve-year-old. He'll bring people in and say, 'They didn't know what was in the bags,' or 'They didn't know they needed a visa.' It's all we can do not to bust up.

While cops and smugglers keep the plot humming, the heart of the story is Brandon's uncanny connection with the natural world. This is a fable of a 19th-century man in a 21st-century world, with a preternaturally sensitive ear and eye for what remains of our glorious region. Here's Lynch's description of a flock of snow geese, seen through Brandon's eyes:

And the sound! A solo snow goose flying overhead sounds lost and pathetic But... with thousands honking simultaneously it is a wildly different noise, like the tribal roar you hear in stadiums, yet even greater than that, beyond animalistic, more like an enormous avalanche or the howl of the earth itself, the high-pitched hum of the sphere, if you could actually hear it, hurtling through space at sixty-six thousand miles an hour. Brandon tilted back and joined in, honking along with the flock until it split into long loose Vs and the bedlam faded to an industrial squeal, then to an ambient wail as the skeins turned to threads before fading to blue.

This reader could bob forever in Brandon's wake, but this is an ensemble piece. Several other characters inhabit, or intrude upon, the story, as Lynch switches back and forth among their perspectives. Some declaim too much -- in the main, Lynch observes like a journalist and writes like a poet, but sometimes he just can't contain that urge to explain things. The plot is episodic, and the ending... well, judge for yourself.

Still, Border Songs is worth the ride. Lynch is a former reporter, and while it's fashionable to be skeptical of journalists who turn to fiction, this ex-journalist brings a depth of knowledge and an attention to detail that should be the envy of more ivory-tower writers.

Read Border Songs in support of an author who has gotten off the beaten path and brought us an off-the-grid world we'd otherwise be doomed to miss.


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