Monday, June 08, 2009

Border Songs

I lost count of how many times the novel Confederacy of Dunces popped into my head as I read Jim Lynch’s Border Songs, but I do not mean anything even remotely negative about Border Songs when I say that. Lynch’s new novel has a certain Confederacy of Dunces vibe about it that will appeal to fans of that memorable John Kennedy Toole novel of almost thirty years ago – and that is a good thing.

Unusual physical specimens, big men generally perceived by their friends and families to be of the hapless misfit variety, anchor both novels. And as Toole did for his Dunces hero, Lynch surrounds Brandon Vanderkool with quirky characters and plops the lot of them into a unique part of the country – two countries, actually – a little rural community living on both sides of the Washington/British Columbia border.

Brandon Vanderkool, six foot eight and so dyslexic that he speaks parts of his sentences backward in times of stress, is a loner whose father pushes him from the family’s small dairy farm into a job with the U.S. Border Patrol. Suddenly, Brandon is responsible for protecting the very border along which he has spent his entire life and, to everyone’s surprise, he turns out to be a natural. As a passionate bird watcher, he is so finely attuned to the comings and goings of the local bird population that he almost unconsciously senses when something is out of place. That sense of place allows Brandon to become one of the stars of the Border Patrol, a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to stopping illegal aliens and pot from crossing the border from the Canadian side. Brandon’s duties with the Border Patrol, though, bring him into daily contact with people he has known all his life, many of whom who still ridicule him out of habit and find it difficult to accept his new position of authority despite all his success.

Border Songs is a character driven novel and Jim Lynch has populated his little international community with some good ones. Brandon’s father, Norm, whose dairy herd is desperately ill, is shocked and even a little embarrassed by all the attention Brandon is getting around town. Norm, by nature a dreamer and a worrier, is also terrified at how rapidly Brandon’s good-natured mother is losing her memory. Madeline Rousseau, to whom Brandon still imagines he has a special bond, grew up within sight of Brandon’s house but on the Canadian side of the ditch separating the two countries. Now, though, she works for a major pot smuggler and she and Brandon are on different sides of the border in more than one sense.

Madeline’s father, a retired professor, stays busy these days yelling anti-American slogans across the ditch at Norm and trying to replicate great inventions of the past by meticulously recreating the original step-by-step research of the actual inventors. Then there is Sophie, the newly arrived masseuse and gossip collector who video tapes interviews with willing customers and seems to be the only person on either side of the border who has the big picture.
Border Songs is a comic look at life on an international border, in this case, a border that is nothing more than a drainage ditch serving the two countries it divides. It is a clear reminder that, while borders are important and necessary, their effects are sometimes absurd, especially when seen through the eyes of those who live so near them.

Rated at: 4.0

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