At one point in Jim Lynch’s new novel, an elderly cancer patient is mistaken for a terrorist after the radiation therapy he’s just received sets off a detector at the U.S. Border Patrol.
Border Songs (Knopf, 291 pages, $25.95), which chronicles the war on drugs and terror along the U.S.-Canadian border, is full of such episodes, which seem to argue that life in the Land of the Free, post 9/11, is getting a little less free than before. Then again, when has common sense ever silenced the howl of the anti-immigration mob?
Severely dyslexic at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Brandon Vanderkool immediately strikes onlookers as an unlikely Border Patrol agent. As he polices 30 miles of the invisible boundary between British Columbia and Washington, Brandon is more interested in counting bird species and crafting Andy Goldsworthy-style works of art than in catching drug smugglers or illegal immigrants. In spite of this, he proves a natural at the job—a “shit magnet,” in the words of his fellow agents—who racks up arrests almost as fast as he collects bird sightings.
Border Songs is set into fast motion when a half-drunk, off-duty Brandon runs a Pontiac off the road in an unauthorized high-speed chase. He thinks his career with the Border Patrol is over, but he’s lucked into another big drug bust. Unconscious behind the wheel of the wrecked Pontiac lies a suspected Algerian terrorist, not to mention bales of marijuana and plastic explosives in the trunk. From there, security measures along the U.S.-Canada border assume hysterical proportions, pitting smugglers against feds, and leaving farmers and townspeople caught in the crossfire.
Lynch’s debut novel, The Highest Tide, crept up on readers like a sneaker wave, unfolding a warm coming-of-age tale against the dazzling backdrop of Puget Sound’s rich marine ecosystem. Border Songs is equally tender and heartfelt, but indisputably a more nuanced book, a sort of Empire Falls along the 49th parallel where failing farms and sleepy towns are being crowded out by tribal casinos and upscale subdivisions. It’s a fascinatingly close look at the confluence of small-town life, the global drug trade and illegal immigration, and it places Jim Lynch at the forefront of Northwest writers to watch.
READ: Jim Lynch reads from Border Songs at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., 228-4651. 7 pm Wednesday, June 24.