Even without knowing or thinking anything else about Canadians, most Americans will confirm that we are polite. But U.S. author Jim Lynch knows better. Few (if any) American novels have ever dealt so explicitly with Canadian themes as Lynch's second, Border Songs , which chronicles an intricate comedy of international misunderstanding across the boundary that separates his native Washington State from British Columbia. His lovingly drawn Canadians include sinister drug smugglers, their cheerfully wasted workers, a wayward young woman with a green thumb gone bad and her stupendously abusive father.
I don't mean to characterize Canadians as marijuana smugglers across the board.
That father is a dying left-wing academic from the University of British Columbia, a literally twisted genius named Wayne Rousseau who lives right next to the border and is generally found, reefer in hand, ruthlessly taunting his God-fearing, dairy-farming American neighbour about the Great Satan's many sins.
The characterization of Rousseau raised some hackles at the otherwise genteel book-club debut of the novel in Toronto last week, Lynch admits. But most readers here will more likely be flattered by the insight that made the character possible. What American novelist has ever taken such pains to understand a genuine Canadian point of view? The most amusingly ugly of Lynch's many ugly Canadians is a magnificent clown, dead true to type, and ultimately sympathetic.
In person, Lynch seems much more like a typical Canadian than any of his characters. Slightly built and quietly observant, he blends into his surroundings with chameleon-like expertise, a trait developed during a long apprenticeship in journalism. Unlike his arrogant Rousseau, he scrupulously respects the other side of every argument that comes to mind. He takes notes even when he is the subject of the interview.
"I don't mean to characterize Canadians as marijuana smugglers across the board," the author concedes diplomatically. Nor, despite making enormous fun of it, does he mean to belittle the threat of international terrorism. The threat is "somewhat overblown," and the U.S. response "slightly bizarre," he says. And he is genuinely surprised that early readers consider his treatment of the subject to be so funny.
"That's fine," he says. "I'm delighted to entertain people. But I also hope the book is somewhat provocative."
Lynch absorbed his lore as a reporter covering the 49th parallel for Portland's daily newspaper, the Oregonian. "Before 9/11, the border was interesting to me in that it seemed like such a funny battlefront on the war on drugs," he says. "After 9/11, it was really interesting because they tripled the border patrol up there to catch terrorists. But what they caught instead were smugglers with incredible amounts of marijuana."
Who couldn't see the fun in that? "I knew I wanted to set a novel up there, but I didn't want to write a suspense thriller at all," Lynch says. "I wanted to play with it."
Lynch, 47, began his career as a legman for legendary Washington, D.C., columnist Jack Anderson, and he went on to earn national awards before quitting the trade decisively with the publication of his widely raved about first novel, The Highest Tide . In his second, Border Songs , Lynch makes full use of his reporting skills to "get inside the heads" of a remarkable variety of characters enmeshed in truly contemporary complications.
It is only natural that one of the book's most audacious inventions has already appeared as a real-world item on the evening news. "In my opinion it helps that there actually was a Molson's brewery in Canada that got converted into a marijuana farm," Lynch says. The same journalistic instincts led him to the surprise discovery of high drama in dairy farming, and to document the amazing richness of West Coast bird life in floods of evocative prose.
But the novel's achievement is that none of the painstaking reporting that makes it so real shows through on the page. Its hero, an autistic giant stubbing his toes in size-19 Border Patrol boots, 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. "I revered Kesey, and those first two novels [ One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion ]are really what got me fired up as a kid," he says. "Those, and the first two Tom Robbins novels [ Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues ] They both wrote about the area with such warmth and humour. They seemed to be having so much fun as authors, and that really appealed to me."
Lynch also inherited his heroes' urge to express the culture of his native Pacific Northwest - something that makes him, according to his own account, a bit of a throwback. "Seattle has lots of great novelists, but they never seem to write about Seattle," he says. "I'm regional in that I'm driven by the setting, and a lot of writers aren't."
John Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner also find places in his literary pantheon. "I've always liked these western writers," he admits, writers who "capture the beauty of the place, the energy of the place."
Popular appeal is no sin in this groove: Lynch is happy to report that Border Songs is being considered for development into a television series. "People mention Northern Exposure ," he says. " Northern Exposure on the border, but more provocative. It could be a good, endless fount of material for a television show."
Before that, its publishers are clearly expecting Border Songs to be one of the most popular novels of 2009. Lynch modestly hopes it will "linger" longer than that. In any case, no reader will ever think the same way about Canadians.