Birders without borders

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Border Songs
Jim Lynch
291 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
Knopf, 2009.

"In war, truth is the first casualty." It's a quote attributed to the Greek playwright Aeschylus from the fifth century B.C., back when wars were wars, fought on actual battlefields by men in helmets who wielded swords and spears. Novelist Jim Lynch understands this adage, and he also knows that in the 21st century's "social wars" -- the War on Drugs, the War on Terror -- innocence is usually casualty number two.

In Border Songs, his second novel after 2005's award-winning The Highest Tide, Lynch zeroes in on northwest Washington's dairy country to examine how our crusades against drugs, illegal immigrants and terrorism affect folks living along the country's other border. But he does so using a character whose innocence is inviolable: Brandon Vanderkool -- a birdwatcher, artist, severe dyslexic and possible idiot savant. When the 6-foot-8, socially awkward Brandon lands a job as Border Patrol agent, he becomes an accidental hero several dozen times over, using his Rain Man-like attention to detail to foil terror plots, apprehend pot smugglers and intercept vanload after vanload of would-be immigrants. Though he'd rather be listening for barn swallows or making sculptures from rocks and leaves, his heroics gradually peel back a protective layer from the surrounding communities. Nearly all of his neighbors are on the take, as it turns out: strapped dairy farmers bribed to look the other way while smugglers hop the ditch that marks the U.S.-Canadian border. Only Brandon seems uninterested in the spoils of illicit cross-border commerce.

To make things worse, Brandon's mom is showing signs of Alzheimer's, his dairy farmer dad is dealing with a mysterious bovine epidemic, and the object of his affection, a marijuana grower, becomes increasingly embroiled in the British Columbia underworld. When the book is firing on all cylinders, these subplots weave together seamlessly, reminding us that headline-making issues in the rural West often unfold against a backdrop of a thousand quiet dramas. 

Border Songs isn't perfect, though. At times, it feels like a heavily edited version of a much longer work. Important scenes wrap up too quickly, and a few of the many characters don't start to feel real until halfway through. Lynch's prose is elegant, with a few genuinely breathtaking passages, but he sometimes sounds like he learned his drug lingo from back issues of High Times -- even the book's ostensibly sophisticated drug kingpins spout goofy stoner-isms straight out of Cheech & Chong. Moreover, the pot-baron baddies' singular dedication to their crop seems to contradict suggestions elsewhere in the novel that the drug trade -- even in Canada -- funds terrorists. Since most of Lynch's villains come off as little more than moderately sinister potheads, it's hard to tell whether he believes that soft drugs are linked to terror.

Still, Border Songs is a page-turner, and it's eye-opening for readers unfamiliar with border politics in the Pacific Northwest. In one scene, an opportunistic Border Patrol chief hustles a gaggle of legislators for increased funding while a joint-toking Canadian professor heckles the "xenophobic, euphoriaphobic" crowd from across the invisible line. When the chief does acquire a set of high-tech surveillance cameras, law-abiding citizens find them so obtrusive that even the local super-patriot becomes an Orwellian conspiracy theorist. Brandon's Border Patrol buddies are conflicted, too. "There's no denying the Holy War is great for finances," one veteran explains, "but of course we're not actually stopping any terrorists, just helping Canuck drug dealers jack their prices by driving up the value of their merchandise."

As his formerly upright neighbors grow increasingly compromised, guileless Brandon remains more interested in tern migrations and wildflowers. He's a likeable, almost monastic character. As his dad explains, "He sees shooting stars nobody else sees and feels earthquakes nobody else feels." In fact, it's Brandon's sensitivity to the natural world that makes him a Border Patrol star. He repeatedly disregards his jurisdiction and flubs the most basic paperwork, but he reads the landscape like a veteran tracker, detecting suspicious circumstances along pastoral roads just as he recognizes snippets of birdsong.

Brandon's naturalistic sleuthing brings the book to a dramatic climax, but Border Songs is less a crime novel than a meditation on the nature of reality. Birds and flowers and neighbors ––these are the things that are real, Lynch seems to suggest. Borders, however, are only as solid as our wavering convictions.

Brian Kevin lives in Missoula, Montana. His articles on travel, adventure, books, and other media have appeared in publications that include Outside, Mother Jones, Paste, and the Fodor's series of guidebooks.

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