Deep within Jim Lynch’s entrancing new novel Border Songs, a former professor at the University of British Columbia is upset by the way his words have been twisted in a (fictional) Maclean’s cover story about the Canada-U.S. border. That doesn’t only make for an interesting interview via crackling cellphone—“Could you repeat that again, Mr. Lynch?”—it speaks to the level of Canadian detail in a very American, and very up-to-the-minute, novel. Paranoia, resentment and frustration on both sides of the 49th parallel? Border Songs reflects them. Dope smugglers and illegal aliens by the truckload? A smugglers’ tunnel and a frontier-crashing figure with attributes of the 9/11 perpetrators and Ahmed Ressam (the would-be Los Angeles airport bomber caught crossing the line with explosives in 1999)? It’s all there. Border Songs reads just like the news, except that it is far better written and has a main character—a gigantic, severely dyslexic, possibly autistic, U.S. Border Patrol agent—who is more compelling and believable than either Janet Napolitano or Peter Van Loan.
Lynch, 47, is one of the rare Americans as interested as Canadians in the border, mostly because he grew up near it, in the western Washington state terrain that is the setting for his novel. He’s always been amazed that his countrymen, whose mental map of their homeland features a Mexican basement teeming with every kind of threat, real or imagined, generally draw a blank when it comes to their Canadian attic. “For me, I always had the sense when crossing the border that I was going to a place that looked the same, but was strangely different—magical even. I don’t know why the Canadian border, which is so fascinating, hasn’t been the source of more literature—not thrillers, just about the quirky, funny things that happen along it.”
That may change in the wake of new passport regulations and other crossing hassles, not to mention Lynch’s own quirky story. Once Americans began to turn their eyes northward after 9/11—in part because of the persistent false report that the hijackers entered the U.S. from Canada—Lynch notes that officialdom was surprised by what it found. “I’ve seen astonishing stats on illegal immigrants coming across. Apparently we had no idea who was crossing the border when we went looking for terrorists. What we found were illegals and a whole lot of bud smugglers.”
Brandon Vanderkool has seen them all. Lynch’s protagonist is 23, six foot eight and 232 lb. Since childhood he could tell everyone what bird made which nest—200 cross-border species fly through the book—but his social awkwardness is off the charts. Brandon can’t read any better than a fourth-grader, but he notices everything, including which bird was singing overhead when he tackled a terrified Asian illegal only he could have spotted moving through the tree shadows. And he’s sensitive to other changes too.
The Vanderkool family’s dairy farm is so situated that its nearest neighbour is in Canada, just a short jump (for Brandon) across a grassy ditch, in a farmhouse occupied by the increasingly anti-American retired UBC prof, and formerly also by his daughter, for whom Brandon carries an incoherent torch. Madeline Rousseau still lives nearby, now putting her agricultural expertise to higher-paying use in the marijuana business, but Brandon doesn’t see her around as much as he used to. “You couldn’t apparently bump into Canadians anymore,” he muses. “Spontaneity had up and left the valley.” So too had 19-year-old Americans ceased going north for legal drinking, and hungry Canadian skiers no longer dropped by for a burger.
Yet despite the barriers to legitimate commerce, a construction boom unfolds along the 49th parallel, especially to the north where Canadians put up luxury homes on hills overlooking America. And there’s plenty of money for those who own borderline property who are willing to turn a blind eye to small groups crossing it in the night. “Look at our western border,” says Lynch. “It’s a line on a map, made of ditches and forest. Although the Canadians I talk to are much more reluctant to come to the States now because of border holdups, it’s impossible to stop smart, determined people from crossing it illegally.”
Border Songs is primarily a novel of place. Lynch plays exquisitely with his theme of division and its consequences by exploring the boundaries within and between characters living in an actual border zone—in a place now rapidly evolving, in real life as much as in fiction, in entirely new directions.