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Border Songs (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – July 13, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: Preternaturally tall and painfully innocent, Brandon Vanderkool is more bird than border patrol agent, prone to mimicking birdsong and building nests. But he's also a remarkably acute defender of a North American border that Jim Lynch describes as "multiple-choice...with incoming settlers finding an American, a Canadian, and a compromise in-between" in Border Songs. Brandon is a rookie agent on a streak of successful smuggling busts during a period when border traffic is at an all-time high, bringing a swift and seismic stroke of change to a corner of the continent that once felt settled and secure. 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 the best moments of Northern Exposure). Jim Lynch writes with enviable restraint, and he sees in a most unexpected way how a person's life clicks and tumbles into (or out of) place. His 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. --Anne Bartholomew

A Q&A with Jim Lynch

Question: What was your inspiration for Border Songs? Were there any actual incidents on the Canadian/U.S. border that gave rise to the idea for this novel?

Jim Lynch: I got hooked on the notion of setting a novel along the border after several trips up there as a journalist looking into security fears and marijuana smuggling. The western end of the border is not only gorgeous but a mindbender, too, seeing how the two countries are often divided by nothing more than a drainage ditch. Just the sight of the ever increasing number of green-and-white Border Patrol cars traversing the quiet farmlands was enough to get the novel rolling in my head. And yes, there were many news flashes on both sides of the ditch that helped inspire this story.

Q: Did you have to do much research for this novel? Ride around with border-patrol agents? Talk to folks who might have some insight into running a vast and highly organized marijuana smuggling business? Or operating a dairy farm? How close to the border do you yourself live?

JL: I did lots of research, first as a reporter, then as a novelist. The Border Patrol tripled its northern force during the two years after 9/11. But when I rode along with agents it became obvious that nobody was catching terrorists. What they were primarily doing was intercepting huge loads of British Columbia marijuana bound for big cities in the West. I watched agents marvel like teenagers over piles of potent buds. I interviewed Canadian activists and growers and found the B.C. marijuana scene amusing. While the U.S. government beefed up its drug war and called pot a deadly gateway drug, Canada flirted with legalization and grew so much marijuana indoors that Forbes called "B.C. bud" the province's largest agricultural export. One grinning smoker/grower explained to me that “the problem with Americans is that you’re so euphoriaphobic.” My research also included hanging out on a small dairy farm. I read books on birds, dyslexia, autism and landscape art too. I live about 150 miles south of the border.

Q: The idea of borders--between places, between people, between the natural world and the man-made, between past and future ways of life--runs through this novel. When you set out to write a story that takes place on an actual border, did you have all these bigger themes in mind?

JL: I was aware of the parallels as they arose, but I didn’t set out to create them. I trusted the setting, the characters and the material and tried to harness all the potential as the story evolved. My lasting impression of the Canadian border is that it’s there to create an illusion of security. It feels arbitrary and, in many ways, nonsensical, which is probably an apt description for most of the borders we erect between each other and between generations, eras and places. The closer you look at the western half of the border, the sillier it gets. It's supposed to follow the invisible 49th parallel, but the thin and imprecise boundary overgrows too fast for crews wielding chainsaws and weed whackers to maintain it. Many miles of it aren’t defined or patrolled, yet that doesn’t stop the recurring cries to “Secure the border!” This all struck me as provocative and comic material.

Q: Brandon Vanderkool is such a wonderful character and certainly an unlikely hero. Where did he come from? He seems in some respects a counterpart to Miles, the protagonist of your first novel, The Highest Tide. But while Miles is exceptionally short, Brandon's exceptionally tall; and whereas Miles is fascinated by marine life, Brandon's passion is focused skyward toward birds. Not a coincidence, I'm guessing?

JL: I’ve always admired highly observant people. So it probably makes sense that I’ve created a couple protagonists who tune into cool stuff that most of us miss. I wanted to create a rookie Border Patrol agent who was oddly and uniquely suited for the work despite his youth and awkwardness. Brandon is the one agent who’s lived along the border his whole life, so he notices what doesn’t belong. He's also far more alert than the average agent, in part because he's constantly scanning the terrain for unusual birds and opportunities for landscape art. In the beginning, I made Brandon so tall to amuse myself. But once he started to emerge on the page his extreme height seemed to fit his extreme mind and it was too late to make him anything other than exactly what he is.

Q: A real wonder for and reverence of the natural world pervades your novels. What in your life has fueled your interest in nature?

JL: I’ve spent most of my years in western Washington state, which is a soggy wonderland of mountains, bays and forests. We arguably don’t have all that much history or culture out here, but we’ve got some of the finest rain forests, glaciers and tidal flats in the world. Many of the moments I’ve felt most alive have been in these settings--hiking, sailing, climbing, laughing.

Q: Of Brandon you write, "Some people blamed his oddities on his dyslexia, which was so severe that one glassy-eyed 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." Are you suggesting that it takes someone who literally sees things most people don't--and perhaps someone who is (literally) larger than life--to begin to straddle these borders?

JL: What you get with Brandon is someone who simply sees very clearly. Most of our minds are cluttered with to-do lists, our vision clouded by preconceptions. Brandon just sees things as they are, which makes him exceptional. Sometimes that helps him straddle or overcome borders, but it often leaves him on the outside looking in. I’ve known oddly gifted dyslexics and have been intrigued when dyslexics and autistics describe their mental process as “thinking in pictures.” Temple Grandin's books explained to me how her autism makes it nearly impossible to socialize but gives her a big advantage in understanding animals. During this same research binge, videos of Andy Goldsworthy’s temporary landscape art gave me ideas on the sort of impromptu art Brandon might attempt while patrolling the border. The more I got to know him, the more appropriate it felt to put him at the center of this unusual setting and story.

Q: Brandon's father, Norm, is in danger of losing his farm, and his mother, Jeanette, in danger of losing her memory. It seems these two potential loses are related to a bigger sense of the loss of a way of life. As you write, "...what pissed Norm off even more than dairies turning into berry farms was dairies turning into cul-de-sacs or toy ranches for the rich. And worst of all was when the rich left the barns and silos standing out of some do-gooder nostalgia for an America they never knew." Are we as a country losing our memory?

JL: We have a short history and short memories to go with it, especially in the West where most people come from somewhere else and few families have been here for more than a few generations. What I was trying to capture with Norm was this sense that you can suddenly look around and find yourself stranded, left behind in yesterday’s America, which is how most family farmers have been feeling for years. Jeanette’s sudden dementia is a different, more personal loss, but carries a similar uneasy jolt that what you took for granted has already slipped away.

Q: Border Songs is populated by so many interesting people. Is there any one character in the novel you most identify with?

JL: I identify with them all to some degree--with Wayne's irreverence, Madeline's recklessness, Sophie's curiosity, Brandon's fascination--but Norm’s hopeful, worrying, temptation-addled mind made him the easiest character for me to climb inside.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what's next for you?

JL: Ken Kesey, Ian McEwan, John Steinbeck, Joan Didon, Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Tom Robbins, Robert Penn Warren, Kent Haruf, etc. I’m now researching a novel that I want to set in Seattle. I’d say more about it but I'd rather not jinx it.

(Photo © Cortney Kelley)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (July 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307456269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307456267
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,958 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Lionel TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Brandon Vanderkoool... notices things. Six foot eight, socially awkward and with a tendency to say his sentences backward when he is nervous, Brandon is most comfortable among the birds, cows and other animals of his home along the US-Canada border in Washington state. Nevertheless, he takes his job as a US Border Patrol agent seriously, and his ability to see what others don't brings him unexpected success in capturing smugglers, as well as the grudging respect of his colleagues, even if the townspeople still think of him as weird.

Border Songs might succeed if it simply focused on Brandon, but Jim Lynch also weaves in the stories of others in Brandon's life. There's Brandon's dad Norm, a struggling dairy farmer who refuses to sell out, Wayne, the retired professor across the border ditch who is (literally) trying to reinvent the light bulb, Madeline, Wayne's daughter and a childhood playmate of Brandon's, who gets involved in things that put her in conflict with Brandon, Sophie the massage therapist that all the men pour their hearts out to, and many more.

When Brandon (accidentally!) nabs a man suspected of being a terrorist, suddenly everyone is interested in him and this neglected stretch of the border. Tensions escalate, as does the smuggling, and Brandon finds himself trying to reestablish a connection with Madeline, who has her own agenda for contacting him.

I was about two-thirds through the book and found myself wondering how Lynch would resolve all the threads. I've read too many books that crashed into a disappointing ending. Not this time - I found the conclusion of Border Songs delightfully satisfying. Full of unusual yet realistic-sounding characters, compelling stories and more than a dollop of social issues, Border Songs is a true delight. I look forward to more from Jim Lynch.
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Having ancestors who settled in Whatcom County 120 years ago, and crossing the border monthly(and later today)between British Columbia & Washington, I was naturally suspicious of Border Songs, but this could have been set anywhere along "the longest un-defended border on Earth". I agreed with one reviewer's mention of A Confederacy Of Dunces, although the character of Brandon VanDerKool is not nearly as weird as Ignatius J. Reilly, and totally unconfrontational, unlike Reilly.
The peripheral characters of Brandon's life who populate Jim Lynch's book, his parents, co-workers, neighbors, and even the people Brandon busts during his time as a Border Patrol agent serve to paint portaits for us, as well as serve as subjects for Brandons paintings, and I've seen small dairy farmers around Lynden and Sumas go through many of the same travails that Brandon's father goes through.
I received this as part of Amazon's Vine program. Books like this are the reason I signed up
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Jim Lynch is a master with the English language. His command of the written word and turns of phrase are a wonder to behold and a joy to read. Here's an example of the imagery he uses, in this case, to describe the difficulty Brandon's (the dyslexic, possibly autistic main character) father has in conversing with his son: "Getting Brandon to talk was sometimes like starting a chainsaw in the spring...he had the FM voice of a man but the jumbled rhythm of a child..."

Describing thousands of snow geese flying overhead: "...like the tribal roar you hear in stadiums, yet even greater than that, beyond animalistic, more like an enormous avalanche or the howl of the earth itself, the high-pitched hum of the sphere...faded to an industrial squeal, then to an ambient wail as the skeins turned to threads before fading to blue..." and barn swallows congregating on power lines: "...the birds spinning like ice skaters or stunt pilots before lining up...voices that sounded like glass marbles rubbing against one another..." No observation, no occurrence, no character in the book escapes from the lyrical language Lynch uses with such deft strokes.

Some reviewers have complained of a lack of plot; it's there, it's just not a roller coaster ride. Instead of the rising action, climax and resolution of this story resembling an aggressive ascent up Mt. Everest and journey down the far side, this plot more closely resembles a relaxing drive through gently rolling hills. Not that this isn't satisfying; we capture a glimpse of this community, these people suspended in a particular time. Sophie Winslow, who spends most of the story collecting information on everyone else, sums it up when Brandon's mother turns the tables, interviews her and asks "...what are you really doing with all this?
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What makes this book enjoyable is the terific cast of characters. There is the focal character - Brandon, the 6'8" severely dyslexic border patrolman who is nearly an idiot savant. Then there are the co-stars like his father - a down and out dairy farmer building a yacht with a wife who is entering dementia. Across the border is Maddy, the marijuana growing specialist towards whom Brandon obsesses. Better is her father - a pot smoking former professor who is busy reinventing things by reenacting the original work (i.e.: he retries thousands of lightbulb efforts tried by Edison before getting the one that works) and never misses an opportunity to hurl hilarious insults across the border. In addition, the mysterious masseuse who films everything.

Then, there is the supporting cast to the stars, which is a fine mix of zany small town characters, border patrolmen and officials from both sides of the Canadian-American border.

The border in rural Washington/B.C. is the setting and the smuggling of dope and aliens is what centers the book.

Beyond the humor of the characters and their idiosynchrosies and foibles are several larger issues. The entire concept of borders is explored. Not only the borders between countries, but between what is right and wrong, between people, between what is normal and not normal.

The exploration of borders runs right into freedom - to be different, to be odd, to do what one loves, to be free from harmful forces.

Every character looks at these issues of borders and freedom; at times explicitly and always implicitly. Mr. Lynch uses his characters, who are often zany, yet never crossing the line to absurd, to look at life's borders and freedom in many different lights from several different angles.
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