The New York Times Book Review
Border Songsby Jim Lynch
Set in the previously sleepy hinterlands straddling Washington state and British Columbia, Border Songs is the story of Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight, frequently tongue-tied, severely dyslexic, and romantically inept. Passionate about bird-watching, Brandon has a hard time mustering enthusiasm for his new job as a Border Patrol agent guarding thirty/i>
Set in the previously sleepy hinterlands straddling Washington state and British Columbia, Border Songs is the story of Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight, frequently tongue-tied, severely dyslexic, and romantically inept. Passionate about bird-watching, Brandon has a hard time mustering enthusiasm for his new job as a Border Patrol agent guarding thirty miles of largely invisible boundary. But to everyone’s surprise, he excels at catching illegals, and as drug runners, politicians, surveillance cameras, and a potential sweetheart flock to this scrap of land, Brandon is suddenly at the center of something much bigger than himself.
A magnificent novel of birding, smuggling, farming and extraordinary love, Border Songs welcomes us to a changing community populated with some of the most memorable characters in recent fiction.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Lynch digs into the strange culture of a U.S.-Canada border town in his lush second novel (after The Highest Tide). Brandon Vanderkool, the town freak people talk about "the way they discuss earthquakes, eclipses and other phenomena," is pushed into joining the Border Patrol by his dairy-farmer father. Though the dyslexic, six-foot-eight Brandon prefers to bird-watch and tend to the cows on his father's farm, he proves to be surprisingly adept at spotting drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, which brings a wave of attention to both him and the town. The illegal goings-on provide excellent plot fodder, though the novel is equally concerned with smalltown life: Brandon's mother is noticing the first sign of Alzheimer's; his father's struggling dairy farm hits a low point when his herd becomes diseased; a local masseuse records the town's activities with her camera; and the beautiful, enigmatic Madeline provides an object of affection for Brandon. Lynch's depiction of the natural world and his deep sympathy for his characters carry the book, and while it's a bit quiet, there are majestic moments. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Six foot eight and dyslexic, Brandon Vanderkool has trouble relating to people, but he's supremely knowledgeable about birds. His dad doesn't think he's cut out for dairy farming, so Brandon ends up in the Border Patrol ruling the divide between Washington and Canada. Though he spends most of his time bird watching, smugglers and illegals keep falling his way, and he soon has a reputation as the patrol's top man. Meanwhile, his father struggles with the farm, his mother struggles with incipient Alzheimer's, a Canadian girl that Brandon's sweet on struggles with her decision to cultivate pot to smuggle across the border, and a new neighbor delights in interviewing everyone. This might sound like an offbeat, aw-shucks comedy or a setup for social tragedy, but, remarkably, Lynch (The Highest Tide) does something different. Playing on our current fears, he show us that the divides among people aren't good, then offers a tenderly convincing ending that's not sentimental. Most readers should love. [See Prepub Alert, LJ/1/09.]
“Wonderfully quirky, all-too-human, tender and uproarious. . . . His characters are achingly real and remarkably communal in their shared sense of one another. . . . This is a splendid, funny, remarkable novel.” —Providence Journal
“A beautifully written novel, hilarious and tender, with rich descriptive passages. . . . A joyful song to the survival of nature and the young at heart.” —The Washington Times
“Wonderful. . . . Lynch portrays Brandon with such tenderness and humor that you can’t help but fall in love with him. . . . Tender, sad and leavened with wit.” — The Washington Post
“One of the more inventive and unique novels of recent years. . . . A book that goes by all too quickly.” —The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Border Songs charms. . . . An enjoyable portrait of life along our northern edge.” —The New York Times Book Review
“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. . . . Lynch observes like a journalist and writes like a poet. . . . [He] brings a depth of knowledge and an attention to detail that should be the envy of more ivory-tower writers.” —The Seattle Times
“Beautifully written. . . . A wonderful story.” —Newark Star-Ledger
“A narrative tilt-a-whirl.” —The Plain Dealer
“It takes a special kind of wordsmith to create a character like Brandon—and, indeed, to craft his whole supporting cast, who are by turns ordinary and ornery (in a way that might remind you of Northern Exposure). . . . [Lynch’s] turns of phrase are as light as a feather, but so precise and purposeful that you’ll quickly find yourself buoyed by the vistas they show you.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
“Border Songs sings. . . . Vanderkool is just one memorable character among many.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Rich [and] imaginative. . . . Written with humor, striking imagery, and colorful characters, Border Songs is a winning novel that satirizes the United States government’s concern about terrorism and unsafe borders. . . . Quirky, funny, fresh, and lyrical, Border Songs will win over just about any reader.” —New West Book Review
“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. [Border Songs] is 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.” —Willamette Week
“Delightful.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Enthralling. . . . A startling look at this country’s far Northwest corner with a compelling cast of oddballs. . . . Lynch’s deep empathy for his characters, no matter how off-kilter, is . . . powerful.” —The Daily Beast
“A free-ranging tale that brings together the world of pot, human smuggling, art and love like never before. There is humor and pathos, irony and genius in this intimate look at one community struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of 9/11.” —Grand Rapids Press
“[Border Songs’s] hero is an imaginative tour de force. Lynch’s comic borderland is not only palpable, it is richly metaphoric. Comparisons with Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins are not only inevitable, they are welcome.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“[Lynch] 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.” —BookPage
“An unusual love story and a novel of hope.” —Daily American
“There’s no great mystery to Border Songs—just a slice of life in a small border town, with people confronted by problems they must find ways to fix. In Brandon Vanderkool, Jim Lynch has given us a delightfully memorable character. . . . A darned good read.” —Bookreporter
“With [an] unlikely hero and his supporting cast of odd ducks, author Lynch spins a tale that investigates how political posturing from on high affects the common folk, skewering the attitudes and cringe-worthy jingoism of the post-9/11 paranoia.” —The Bellingham Herald
“A wonderful and important read. . . . Lynch has a delightful satirical yet human touch in the way he tells us about this border culture, a subject rarely explored in literature.” —Vancouver Sun
“Marvelous, funny, and gentle.” —The Spokesman-Review
“Jim Lynch masterfully tiptoes the line between delicate observation and satire with unexpected humor, all the while following the coming of age story of an unlikely hero.” —The National Post (Canada)
“Whimsical, sensitive and full of heart. . . . The sense of place the author creates is only possible through humility, a slowed-down attentiveness and sensitivity to nature.” —Cascadia Weekly
“The quirky, colorful characters that populate Border Songs fill this book with charm, but it is misfit Brandon Vanderkool and his obsession with birds that enables the novel to take flight.” —Curled Up With a Good Book
“Jim Lynch’s new novel reads as an antidote to the 21st century: a kind of metaphorical insistence on hope and simplicity and art in the face of a surrounding storm. Border Songs is a quietly ambitious book and it just gets better as it rises to the final satisfying image.” —Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.58(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.18(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Jim Lynch
KnopfCopyright © 2009 Jim Lynch
All right reserved.
EVERYONE REMEMBERED the night Brandon Vanderkool flew across the Crawfords’ snowfield and tackled the Prince and Princess of Nowhere. The story was so unusual and repeated so vividly so many times that it braided itself into memories along both sides of the border to the point that you forgot you hadn’t actually witnessed it yourself.
The night began like the four before it, with Brandon trying not to feel like an impostor as he scanned the fields, hillsides and roads for people, cars, sacks, shadows or anything else that didn’t belong, doubting once again he had whatever it took to become an agent.
He rolled past Tom Dunbar’s dormant raspberry fields, where in a fit of patriotism Big Tom had built a twenty-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, which was either aging swiftly or perhaps, as the old man claimed, had been vandalized by Canadians. Brandon reluctantly waved at the Erickson brothers—who laughed and mock-saluted once they recognized him in uniform—and rattled past Dirk Hoffman’s dairy, where Dirk himself stood on a wooden stepladder completing his latest reader-board potshot at the environmentalists: MOUTHWASH IS A PESTICIDE TOO! Brandon tapped his horn politely, then swerved through semifrozen potholes across the center line to get a cleaner look at the fringed silhouette of ared-tailed hawk, twenty-six, the white rump of a northern flicker, twenty-seven, and, suspended above everything, the boomerang shape of a solo tree swallow, twenty-eight.
Brandon traversed the streets of his life now more than ever, getting paid, so it seemed, to do what he’d always loved doing, to look closely at everything over and over again. The repetition and familiarity suited him. He’d spent all of his twenty-three years in these farmlands and humble towns pinned between the mountains and the inland sea along the top of Washington State. Traveling beyond this grid had always disoriented him, especially when it involved frenzied cities twitching with neon and pigeons and bug-eyed midgets gawking up at him. A couple hours in the glassy canyons of Seattle or Vancouver could jam his circuits, jumble his words and leave him worrying his life would end before he had a chance to understand it.
Some people blamed his oddities on his dyslexia, which was so severe that one giddy pediatrician called it a gift: while he might never learn how to spell or read better than the average fourth grader, he’d always see things the rest of us couldn’t. Others speculated that he was simply too large for this world. Though Brandon claimed to be six-six, because that was all the height most people could fathom, he was actually a quarter inch over six-eight—and not a spindly six-eight either, but 232 pounds of meat and bone stacked vertically beneath a lopsided smile and a defiant wedge of hair that gave him the appearance of an unfinished sculpture. His size had always triggered unreasonable expectations. Art teachers claimed that his unusual bird paintings were as extraordinary as his body. Basketball coaches babbled about his potential until he quit hoops for good after watching that huge Indian in Cuckoo’s Nest drop the ball in the hole for a giddy Jack Nicholson. Tall women fawned over his potential too, until they heard his confusing raves and snorting laughs or took a closer look at his art.
Near dusk, Brandon wheeled up Northwood past the no casino! yard signs toward the nonchalant border, a geographical handshake heralded here by nothing more than a drainage ditch that turned raucous with horny frogs in the spring and overflowed into both countries every fall. The ditch was one of the few landmarks along the nearly invisible boundary that cleared the Cascades and fell west through lush hills that blurred the line no matter how aggressively it was chainsawed and weed-whacked. From there, as thin as a rumor, the line cut through lakes and swamps and forests and fields. After turning into a ditch for a few miles, the line climbed one more hill before dropping again, slicing through Peace Arch Park and splashing into salt water. The park was all most travelers saw of the border, but locals drove into the valley to gawk at this ditch that divided the two countries and created a rural strip where Canadians and Americans drove on parallel two-lane roads, Boundary Road to the south and Zero Avenue to the north, just a grassy gutter away from each other, waving like friendly neighbors—until recently, that is.
Most passersby didn’t notice anything different. The soggy, fertile valley still rolled out for miles in every direction until it bumped into a horseshoe of mountains—Alp-like peaks to the north, a jagged range to the east and Mount Baker’s massive year-round snowball to the southeast—that gave the impression the only way out was west through the low-slung San Juan islands. There were still orderly rows of raspberry canes, fields bigger and greener than the Rose Bowl and dozens of pungent dairies with most of the cows hooked to computers that automated feeding and maximized the river of milk exiting daily in the metal bellies of tankers the size of oil trucks.
But a closer look hinted at the changes. Many barns and silos had nothing to do with cattle or farms anymore. U.S. border towns no longer served as burger pit stops for Canadian skiers dragging home from Baker. And nineteen-year-old Americans stopped rallying across the line for the novelty of legal drinking. Yet despite the slump in legitimate commerce, a curious construction boom was taking place on both sides. New cul-de-sacs rolled north like advancing armies, and young Canadians continued stacking trophy homes on abrupt hills with imperial views of America.
Brandon trolled Boundary Road past the home of Sophie Winslow, the masseuse who seemingly everyone visited but nobody knew. A black sedan cruised the Canadian side of the ditch, the driver avoiding eye contact and accelerating as Brandon closed in on his family’s thirty-four-acre dairy with its three barns, one silo and two-story house that looked naked in the winter without blooming willows or a dinghy full of tulips pulling your eyes off its weathered planks. Overhead lights brightened the back barn, where his father, no doubt, was resanding teak already rubbed smooth as brass while obsessing over what he still couldn’t afford, such as a mast, sails or a reliable diesel. A television winked through the kitchen window. Was Jeopardy! already on? The show exercised his mother’s memory, as she put it, at least when she remembered to watch it. Brandon glanced back across the ditch at the row of houses along Zero Ave. Did Madeline Rousseau still live with her father? How long had it been since he’d even talked to her? You apparently couldn’t bump into Canadians anymore. Spontaneity had up and left the valley.
He puttered past the Moffats’ farm before pulling up for a closer look at icicles dangling from their roadside shed. He thumped his head unfolding from his rig, then snapped off a stout icicle, dipped its flat end into a slushy puddle and froze it like a spike to the hood of his idling rig while listening to the final mechanical exertions of the day—grumbling generators, misfiring V-8s, grinding snowplows. He stamped his thick-soled boots, trying to create room for his toes. The agency’s largest boots were a half size too small and gave him the floating sensation of being detached from the earth. He heard the rat-a-tat of a downy woodpecker, twenty-nine, and the nervous chip of a dark-eyed junco, thirty. Brandon could identify birds a mile away by their size and flight and many of their voices by a single note. During the climax of spring, he often counted a dozen birds from his pillow without opening his eyes. Most birders keep life lists of the species they’ve seen, and the more intense keep annual counts. Brandon kept day lists in his head, whether he intended to or not.
He snapped off two smaller icicles, and then tried to moisten and freeze them to opposite sides of his original hood spike, but they wouldn’t stick. He flattened their butt ends with his teeth, redipped them in the puddle and tried again. One held, then the other, creating for several seconds a glittering hood ornament before it toppled and shattered. He was eagerly starting over when he heard what sounded like crackling cellophane.
Deer often glided through at this hour. Or maybe the Moffats’ turkeys had just busted loose. When Brandon looked up, he noticed it was snowing again, then counted seven child-sized shadows darting through the curtain of firs dividing the Moffats’ farm from the Crawfords’. Glancing toward the border, to see if others were hopping the ditch, he saw nothing but taillights. By the time he turned back to the trees, the shadows were gone. Grabbing his portable radio, he tried to summon the casual murmur he’d been practicing.
“I’ll see if two-twenty-nine’s in the area,” the dispatcher replied in a similar disinterested mumble.
229 was Dionne. The thought of his trainer backing him up wasn’t what flustered Brandon. It was the fact that two union guys had already warned him to always wait for backup, whereas Dionne insisted that all he ever needed was someone rolling in his direction. During his first solo patrol he’d heard her say on the radio, “I’ve got bodies,” as if rounding up six Pakistanis were no more complicated than picking up a sixer at the Qwik Stop. She averaged almost twice as many arrests as any other agent and, as a result, was what the others respectfully, if begrudgingly, called a shit magnet.
Brandon loped toward the firs before remembering he’d left his motor idling and his Beretta on the passenger seat. Too late. He knew the trees opened into a leased pasture that led to Pangborn Road, where a van was probably waiting, and from there they were just minutes away from vanishing into the I-5 bloodstream. He ran harder once he made out the stampede of tiny footprints beneath branches the size of airplane wings, and two shadows finally bobbed into view. He shouted “Border Patrol!” for the first time in his life. To his ears, sounded like a self-mocking falsetto. He might as well have yelled “Boo!” or “Ready or not!”
The shorter shadow glanced back, squealed and slipped to a knee before being hoisted by the other. What if they were just kids? Scaring children was another phobia of his. Babies loved him, but kids cowered no matter how small and friendly he tried to make himself.
Lumpy ground almost tripped him twice before he broke free of the trees into a mini-blizzard and a crunchy field. He knew the Crawfords’ pasture was ditched for drainage, but he didn’t know where and stumbled again, half-toppling before lurching back on track and spotting another five of them—or was it seven?—scattered ahead.
Even after the academy, a week as a trainee and four nights on solo patrols, he’d never pictured himself in actual pursuit. Everything had been in the abstract, like auditioning for some role he didn’t want or expect to get. But what choices did he have? His father had forced him off the dairy and nobody else was hiring. So here he was, in painful boots, in a slippery pasture less than a mile from his home, in pursuit. Yet compared to faking patrols, this felt oddly relaxing, his body coiling into an efficient glide until Dionne’s warning echoed inside him: Assume everyone is carrying a nuclear device.
The road was still sixty yards away and he didn’t see any vehicles waiting, although he heard and then saw one howling in their direction. The smaller shadow glanced back again and squealed. It was light enough to make out her anguished features. A woman? An Asian or a Mexican or . . . a woman. He had an urge to help her, but by the time he caught up with them he was too winded for words. He just lunged for their outer shoulders, simultaneously stubbing his left boot, cramping his right hamstring and catapulting himself horizontally into the sudden blaze of Dionne’s flashlight.
That image soon made the rounds on both sides of the border, the first irrefutable evidence that Brandon Vanderkool’s stint with the BP was more than a onetime sight gag like sending a dwarf to the plate to shrink the strike zone. Though Alexandra Cole didn’t see it herself, she would later swear that Brandon flew twenty-six feet from takeoff to landing, which eventually went unquestioned alongside such facts as his flight occurred during a freak blizzard at dusk on March twenty-first, that he was unarmed at the time and wearing size-nineteen boots that were too small. As the story evolved it was ultimately seen as the beginning of a madness and temptation that blew through the valley, but that perspective came later. What made it an instant favorite was that for once a border bust had been made by someone everybody knew. And as it played out, the illegals Brandon tackled were not generic aliens, but rather a regal couple from some unknown nation.
From Brandon’s vantage, he was simply airborne long enough to watch himself in flight, and he’d experienced enough similar out-of-body sensations to chalk them up to his gift. Regardless, he saw himself from above, his arms flung out like albatross wings until they collapsed around the runaways in a flying hug as he used their brittle bodies to break his landing. He heard a noise like a snapping wishbone before Dionne shouted his name. Her powerful light swung through snow?flakes the size of chicken feathers, blinding him, his breathless apologies interrupted by the murderous screech of a barn owl. Thirty-one.
Excerpted from Border Songs by Jim Lynch Copyright © 2009 by Jim Lynch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jim Lynch lives with his wife and their daughter in Olympia, Washington. As a journalist, he has received the H. L. Mencken Award and a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, among other national honors. His first novel, The Highest Tide, won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, appeared on several bestseller lists, was adapted for the stage and has been published in eleven foreign markets.
- Olympia, Washington
- Date of Birth:
- November 3, 1961
- Place of Birth:
- Seattle, Washington
- B.A.s in English and Journalism, 1985
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Starts a little slowly and builds quickly as a quirky character either stumbles or unravels several border crossing crimes. Beautifully written, once you're in, you're in for the long haul. I think this will be around a long time.
I loved The Highest Tide, and at first I wasn't sure if this was living up to that high standard. But this was at least as good, if not better -- more complex, if not quite as magical, but magical all the same. A wonderful book.
Looking beyond the very unlikely scenario of a dyslexic northern border kid getting a primary assignment to his Blaine, WA home town, the writer skips past a very rigorous Border Patrol Academy Spanish curriculum which in my experience contained NO TRUE/FALSE answers. The ONLY part I found accurate was the character Dionne's assessment of the "Roadie" culture existing on the northern border. "Retired On Active Duty" too well described norther border agents for too many years. Although I believe that is currently changing, I was incredulous that anyone would be entertained by this ludicrous tale. As a retired, career Border Patrolman I love good fiction about the thrills and chills of border work. Southern border work. The only chills I got reading this story were courtesy of our Colorado winter. In all honesty, I could not recommend this book to anyone .