An Agent of Understanding

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009


By Jim Lynch

Knopf. 291 pp. $25.95

Terrorists and tourists beware: "The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" sounds like an official vacation plan, but in typical congressional doublespeak it's designed to slow you down. Starting this month, guards along the U.S.-Canadian border have begun requiring everyone traveling into the United States to show a passport or other "compliant documents." This thickening of the world's longest, once-undefended border is the latest sad, largely ineffectual annoyance spawned by our fear of drugs and foreigners. For small towns along the ambiguous, 5,500-mile line that separates these two countries, a quiet way of life has been snuffed out under the chilling eye of surveillance cameras, remote sensors, unmanned drones, checkpoints and police dogs.

The anxiety that powers these security efforts provides the backdrop for Jim Lynch's wonderful new novel, "Border Songs." As a reporter in Washington state after Sept. 11, 2001, Lynch saw the United States triple its border patrol even while drug money fueled a spectacular building boom in once sleepy Canadian towns. The broad outline of the story he tells corresponds with reports in the news about human trafficking, a cascade of marijuana imports, the apprehension of Islamic terror suspects and even the construction of a tunnel from British Columbia to Washington. But while all these alarms sound, "Border Songs" stays tightly focused on the ordinary people who live along both sides of a drainage ditch that runs through dairy farms and raspberry patches. Here, independent-minded neighbors stroll back and forth between the United States and Canada by just crossing the street. Until now.

Literarily looming large among these characters is the irresistibly odd Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot-8, 232-pound naif who's recently joined the U.S. Border Patrol. Looking like "an unfinished sculpture," he seems an unlikely protector against Islamo-fascists or drug kingpins. At 23 he has rarely ventured outside the farmlands of northwest Washington. His dyslexia is so severe that he can barely read, and when he's nervous, he shouts at a suspect, "Let your hands see me." But away from the confusion of people, Brandon communicates lucidly with the natural world, particularly with birds, which soar over political borders and through some of this novel's most beautiful passages. He's a terrible student who pays almost no attention to his supervisor, but to everyone's surprise, Brandon's ability to read the signs and sounds of the forest makes him a crackerjack agent. Again and again, during his reveries in the woods, he spots the subtle clues left by drug runners and human smugglers. Almost accidentally, he nabs a series of high-value suspects, which throws the United States into "paranoid mode."

Lynch portrays Brandon with such tenderness and humor that you can't help but fall in love with him. Almost childlike in his outsize enthusiasm, he sometimes strips down and covers himself with leaves or calls out to the owls. When feelings get too bunched up in his head, he builds strange natural forms, temporary works of art from woven twigs or stacked stones. The townspeople don't know what to make of these pieces, but they're a haunting expression of Brandon's transcendent vision, his sympathy with birds and beavers and spiders.

Still, Lynch never romanticizes Brandon's disability or reduces him to some eccentric savant -- "The Curious Incident of the Birds in the Night-time" or "Monk Meets the Mounties." The frustration of being unable to read people easily or express himself articulately wears at Brandon in ways that all of us can sympathize with. And Lynch isn't so restrained by sensitivity that he misses the humor of this earnest young man's predicament: Brandon's unrequited affection for a marijuana grower just across the border provides much of the novel's comedy and pain. "You laugh when you're beautiful," he tells her before a hilariously awkward sex scene.

The story unfolds as a series of brief, absorbing episodes that involve a rich ensemble cast. Tender, sad and leavened with wit, "Border Songs" reads like something written by a more efficient Richard Russo. Lynch keeps our attention off Brandon during long stretches of the novel, allowing us to follow the lives of other characters who are equally strange and endearing. The young gardener whom Brandon pines for finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the surreal business of marijuana agriculture -- a shadow economy that funds underground growing factories the size of Wal-Marts. Her firebrand father flies an Iranian flag on the U.S. border, smokes pot to soothe the symptoms of MS and tinkers away in his basement trying to reproduce history's greatest inventions. (To simulate Thomas Edison's deafness, he wears earplugs.)

But the most affecting character and the moral center of the novel is Brandon's long-suffering father, Norm, a dairyman whose once steady life is collapsing around him. While "Canadians made millions selling drugs and Seattle kids earned fortunes in Internet and wireless worlds Norm didn't need or understand," his cows are constantly sick, tempting him to believe the rumors that terrorists are targeting the milk supply. What's more worrisome, his wife is losing her memory. "The gaps in her thinking," he realizes, "were as apparent as slats in a fence." Drug money would be so easy that Norm might not resist much longer -- packets of cash literally drop from the sky -- but he worries about his son dressed like "a giant Boy Scout in that silly uniform . . . looking so alive and powerful that if he inhaled too deeply everyone else in the room might pass out."

With a plot involving terror suspects and big-time drug dealers at the chafing line between two nations, "Border Songs" remains surprisingly sensitive and understated. Flashes of satire about the hyperventilating U.S. Congress and the American media leave no doubt about Lynch's opinion of efforts to "seal the north." But he seems determined not to let his story exploit the elements of paranoia he's critiquing: Every tense chase scene ends in a muffle, and even a bomb scare involving hundreds of children peters out before it generates much sweat. In a sense, Lynch has written an anti-thriller thriller, not just a liberal critique of the war on terror but also a moving, optimistic rebuttal of our paranoia that encourages us to imagine, with Brandon, the possibility of flying over everything that divides us.

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