Seattle, that metronatural paradise of fine coffee and clear WiFi, gets a bittersweet love note in this new novel by Jim Lynch. “Truth Like the Sun” illuminates the city’s commingled beauty and vanity with a story of civic pride, political intrigue and journalistic tenacity. That’s a lot for a mere 250 pages to do — Tom Wolfe’s sendup of Atlanta, “A Man in Full,” thundered along for three times that many pages. But perhaps such briskness is appropriate for the trim progressives of America’s most active city.
Knitting together fact and fiction, history and current events, Lynch captures the modern spirit of the Emerald City in the outsize presence of one remarkable character, Roger Morgan, a charmer known affectionately as “Mr. Seattle.” We meet him atop the Space Needle in 1962 on the opening day of the World’s Fair. With a past as cloudy as Seattle’s weather, Roger is the city’s “grand exalted dreamer,” the impossibly young father of the fair, the man who first drew the Space Needle on a cocktail napkin and then saw it rise in 407 days. Everything about him calls for exclamation points! He’s “the city’s good luck charm.” Hundreds of bells clang, thousands of balloons float to the sky, 35 countries join the extravaganza, and throngs of people begin arriving to behold “the world of tomorrow today!”
Roger is an indefatigable schmoozer, and like everybody in this novel, the author is a bit in love with him. I don’t blame him. He’s dashing and gracious, and never less than entirely candid, except to the fiancee he keeps stringing along. His actual position remains glamorously vague: “a midwife for good ideas.” He’s in charge of everything but not burdened by any particular job, which allows him to be all things to all people: developers, politicians, civic organizers, anybody who can help him put on “the most imaginative and spectacular show of our time!” Lynch notes that “he’s increasingly driven half-mad by the limitations of having only one life.” You can’t help but want a little of that zeal to rub off on you.
For most of us mortals, cities seem like such vast, chaotic structures that it’s hard to fathom how one man could exercise much influence. But highways go here or there, apartments rise this high or that high, shopping complexes thrive or die, and none of that happens by accident — or logic. Barely 30, Roger has made himself into an essential liaison among builders, financiers and unions. As the cameras flash at the opening ceremony of the fair, “it occurs to him that he still doesn’t know the full price of the deals he’s struck and the friends he’s made.” His affection for Seattle exceeds anyone’s cynicism about his motives, exceeds perhaps even his own wisdom. Sure, he’s flying too close to the sun, but what a spectacular view.
Although he grew up in Seattle, Lynch was born just a few months before the fair opened, so he brings no personal memories to the city’s seminal event. Nonetheless, he does a fantastic job of re-creating that explosion of civic boosterism, scientific mania and celebrity fawning. Walt Disney raves about this “jewel box” on the West Coast. And so do John Wayne, Roy Rogers, John Glenn and even Prince Philip, who can match Roger charm for charm. Vice President Lyndon Johnson makes a hilarious cameo, whining about his swollen groin. Elvis Presley, a thoughtful and respectful young man just 27 years old, drops by, too, and gives this novel its title. But Lynch reminds us that these are the weeks leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tourists gliding along the shiny new monorail have reason to wonder whether the future isn’t about to end in a mushroom cloud.
In alternating chapters, the novel switches to 2001, another pre-apocalyptic moment in American history. Roger is now 70 and still just as likable and well-connected as ever. Fed up with the corruption and incivility of his city, he launches a shoestring campaign for mayor: “Vote for the old guy!” He just might win, but an enterprising young reporter from Capitol Hill’s Roll Call has joined the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (this is before it went online-only) and plans to make a name for herself with an exposé about Mr. Seattle.
These modern-day sections provide almost all the drama in the novel, but they’re nowhere near as artful as the 1962 chapters, which let the fair and Roger’s enthusiasm unspool so richly. Although Lynch worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and Washington state before turning to fiction, his portrayal of the Post-Intelligencer newsroom feels stale, a collection of the usual suspects borrowed from some TV dramedy about the economic and competitive pressures of modern journalism. (“The Imperfectionists,” that witty newspaper novel by Tom Rachman, transforms those types into marvelously quirky individuals.) The plucky young reporter determined to get to the truth about Roger’s background and maybe win a Pulitzer Prize has potential as a character, but Lynch doesn’t give himself enough room to let her breathe outside that worn archetype. At this length, at this speed, the complex issues he wants to explore about the responsibilities of journalists, the conflict between accuracy and fairness, the corrosive pressure to break news — all come across in primary colors. We need a dramatization of Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer”; we get a breezy episode of “Lou Grant.”
Not that I didn’t love “Lou Grant” or enjoy this novel, which frames some of the problems of modern journalism with admirable clarity. When Roger mutters, “Life is a challenging and often inexplicable odyssey that doesn’t translate easily into newspaper stories,” he’s arrived at a painful truth about our business, which can slip so quickly from righteous to cruel. But Lynch’s beautifully drawn previous novels, “The Highest Tide” and “Border Songs,” suggest that maybe now he’s being pushed along too quickly by deadlines himself.
Still, in the nation’s second-most-literate city — sorry, Seattle, we’re No. 1 — “Truth Like the Sun” should quickly rise up the local bestseller list. In fact, any reader interested in the relationship between a town and its most enthusiastic participants will respond to this engaging story. But it’s not the literary monument it could have been.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
TRUTH LIKE THE SUN
By Jim Lynch
Knopf. 245 pp. $25.95