Thursday, September 10, 2009

Border Songs

Border Songs by Jim Lynch: centered on a strange and glorious central character who is an artist of the natural world and, at the same time, a newly-trained Border Patrol guard who is saddened as he repeatedly, accidentally, miraculously discovers and then must arrest illegal immigrants being smuggled under a feed truck, inside vans, in hidden compartments in cars, as they come across the Canadian-US border.

His art is inspired by Andy Goldsworthy; scenes of the character, six-foot-eight-inches tall Brandon Vanderkool building capes of leaves stitched together with thorns or swinging a club over water to create rainbows (look here for an amazing photo of Goldsworthy making rainbows) are luminescent. And he has the tenor of some of the great American characters - Tom Sawyer, a little, Atticus Finch, a bit, Steinbeck, a dose.

Brandon is accompanied in this novel by a group of equally eccentric, equally realistic characters, including his father, Norm, who is struggling to keep the dairy farm going while he builds a sea-going sailboat in the back barn (neighbors gathered to watch, only to see if the boat wouldn't fit into the barn); Wayne Rousseau, the ex-professor across the ditch that marks the border between Canada and the U.S., retired, declining from MS, who is recreating the experiments of Edison and Ben Franklin (a great scene when Wayne takes his kite out during a thunderstorm to discover electricity) and the painting of Van Gogh; and Sophie Winslow, the mysterious massage therapist who is filming and interviewing everyone and who everyone wants to speak with, their rare chance for a confession because everyone is doing something just this shade of the black-and-white of the law.

Much remains mysterious enough throughout the book, making this novel and mystery and rumination about art and immigration and borders and a lot about marijuana - how it's grown, marketed, smoked. Overall, the novel has a sense of wonder. Brandon is very attuned to the life of nature around him and especially to birds. As he goes throughout his workday on the Border Patrol, he keeps a mental list of the birds he observes: "The agency's largest boots were a half size too small and gave him the floating sensation of being detached from earth. He heard the rat-a-tat of a downy woodpecker, twenty-nine, and the nervous chip of a dark-eyed junco, thirty" (6)

What I liked best about Border Songs, beyond the characters, was the ending. And individual sentences that are just right, like this one: "The looks you get or don't get let you know exactly where you're at, where you're headed and where you can never go again" (226).

1 comment:

Jim Lynch said...

Janet,
Belated thanks for your thoughtful and sweet review of Border Songs. It's popping out in paperback on July 13, and was picked as one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post, Toronto Star and others. Hoping to get it out to more people who'll enjoy it. Linking this blog to my website.
Best wishes,
Jim Lynch
jimlynchbooks.com