I've been hearing since it came out that Jim Lynch's Border Songs was a special novel, so I moved it up in the queue after grabbing a copy in Tofino last month (salesgirl: "Oh, I'm SO glad someone bought that! It's my favourite novel right now!" Me: "Um... paying by debit, please"). And yep, it's a special novel, special enough that I'm teaching it in January.
Basically, it focuses on a brief period in the life of Branden Vanderkool, a 6'8" young man with assorted intellectual challenges (with only dyslexia being named) who has become a Border Patrol agent for the American government. He's stationed in his hometown, in the semi-rural area just across the border from Abbotsford (or "Greater Vancouver" if that's a distinction you don't care about), dealing with a flood of illegal immigration and pot smuggling. There's a girl, of course, as there always should be, but there are also birds, in ways there almost never are in fiction, and also cows the way James Herriot might know them. (Wonderful moment where a visitor surprises a a farmer, for example, finding him arm-deep in a cow's rectum!)
Did Border Songs remind anyone else of Napoleon Dynamite, I wonder?
Random House calls it a "magnificent novel of birding, smuggling, farming, and extraordinary love," and while that's neither wrong nor entirely misleading, it also leaves out some genuinely fascinating threads. There's the question of mind and intellect, for one thing, which I appreciated but (to be honest) thought could have been handled more sensitively; there's also the question of form, in that Lynch deploys numerous stereotypes as well as draws on a few different literary traditions, notably the picaresque novel and the bildungsroman. It fits neither of these formal models all that well, to be clear, but it's a novel that resonates with other texts and models. Because it's so unusual, to my eyes Border Songs draws some of its strength from its allegiances to the usual, and that's something that strikes me as really valuable here.
And there's art, too, lots of it, even though we have to imagine Brandon's productions. It's another way of seeing, what Brandon represents, and as the reader you get to - have to - choose whether to focus on his intellectual oddities, or on the richness of his life. Very cool novel, seriously, even though this is a shorter review than I might normally do for a novel I liked so very much.