Toronto mayor Rob Ford could use a Roger Morgan right about now.
While the former may often seem a bizarre product of the imagination, the latter is actually fictional, an ambitious city builder who may or may not have the best interests of his city at heart.
In Jim Lynch's entertaining third novel, Truth Like the Sun (after The Highest Tide and Border Songs), Morgan is the backroom pitch man and political manipulator (we call them "developers" now) behind Seattle's Space Needle and World Fair in 1962, a pair of crass boondoggles that would make a giant Ferris wheel and waterfront casino seem tastefully restrained by comparison.
He's also, four decades on, the 70-year-old who's decided to run for mayor.
And Helen Gulanos is the young newspaper reporter assigned the story of finding out why this old fixer has decided to make a public run for office, now, in 2001, in the hangover of Seattle's dot-com bust. She rightly figures that a man who's been involved in city politics and business this long has some secrets.
The question of whether the charming and seemingly always sincere Roger Morgan is ultimately a man above – or engineer of – corruption is the novel's plot driver as well as its theme. Do movers and shakers know why they build and acquire? Are the captains of a city's growth necessarily compromised? How deeply can a good man fool himself?
Yet, as promising as these investigations may be, Lynch's novel elects not to get too deep, preferring well-drawn local colour and brisk pacing over burning social criticism or surprising revelation. Which may be a wise decision, given how delightful many of his castoff lines are. For instance, in assessing its outdoorsy smugness, Helen notes, "Seattle reminded her of men she'd known who'd been told too many times how handsome they were." And of the new century's newsroom, she observes "younger reporters filling the news holes while veterans … feigned industry while playing computer solitaire or outlining novels about divorced journalists finding true love again."
Lynch's gift for observation is even more evident in his deft descriptions which capture a character – or exaggerate a caricature – in a single phrase. It's a talent that lends itself well to the celebrity cameos that pepper the novel, a flavouring that turns out to be the most amusing aspect of Truth Like the Sun. There's LBJ complaining of a swollen testicle, John Glenn ("square-jawed proof that America will get to the future first"), Ed Sullivan appearing as "a grumpy turtle," Edward R. Murrow's "burned face seemingly incapable of joy," Elvis looking to a stranger with "a rescue-me eye roll."
Ultimately, however, Truth Like the Sun is a novel of place over character, and it's hard to imagine any novelist who knows his Seattle better than Jim Lynch. His 1962 version is just as particular as the 2001, so that we're drawn convincingly back and forth across this span of time to see both its almost embarrassing differences along with the often disheartening similarities.
Truth Like the Sun is neither raucous enough for outright comedy nor biting enough for satire, yet, like a good mayoral candidate, it fizzes with humour and likability. And while Roger Morgan proves to be something perhaps less than fascinating, he is more than good company, an indefatigable promoter who effectively sells the reader even as he under-delivers on substance. His touching faith that, through sheer energy and handshake deals, Seattle can be made truly and inarguably "world class" (sound familiar?) proves to be the kind of thing a city both needs and would be wise to be suspicious of.
Andrew Pyper is the author of five novels, including Lost Girls, The Killing Circle and, most recently, The Guardians.