Jim Lynch, Before the Wind

The immersive quality of Jim Lynch's Before the Wind is impressive, and I say that about a sailing novel as someone whose only extended boat experience has involved an 11' aluminum rowboat powered by a 1965 3hp Evinrude. In other words, I fell deeply into this book, for reasons not necessarily related to its apparent topic and milieu, and it's another example of just how unobtrusively accomplished a novelist Lynch is.

Let me back up.

When I read his novel Border Songs, under the influence of Jenny Kerber who'd done a terrific talk about the book at an ALECC conference, I really enjoyed it, and I wanted more. (In the end I didn't see as much in the novel as Jenny had, but I'll always trust her, and if you're the least bit lit.crit, you should check whether her articles link up with what you're working on.) When Truth Like the Sun appeared, I jumped at the chance to read it, and again really enjoyed the experience.

Somehow, Lynch's realism just feels real, and yet still literary, rather than realist. As such, he's a writer of literary fiction who I suspect gets too little credit for his craft from allegedly highbrow readers, and too little attention from readers uninterested in the largely irrelevant highbrow musings of lit.crit people like me (and probably you...).

Before the Wind depicts two worlds intimately, that of the chaotic and near-cartoonish Johannssen family (designers and builders of sailboats, though our narrator's mother is a mathematician), and that of the sail-obsessed. Neither of these has anything in common with my own circles, and yet I was immediately at home. The increasingly picaresque narrative of elder brother Bernard never rings untrue, no matter how implausible it gets, and ditto the increasingly mystical narrative of younger sister Ruby: if anything, the groundedness of 31-year-old narrator Josh is the least explicable component of the novel, so compellingly reasonable is all the wildness eddying around him.

(At times, I should say, the Johannssens reminded me of the Waterhouse family, in Neal Stephenson's one truly great novel, Cryptonomicon, and I mean that as a great compliment.)

What's meant to seem like the animating question here is whether the Johannssen family will be able to get the gang back together one last time to race, and win, the Victoria Swiftsure yacht race. As with all great novels, though I don't think I'd quite put Before the Wind in that category, the point of the novel is beside the point, this engaging, poignant, triumphant storyline less worth your time than the experience of the thing.

To me, Before the Wind reads like another essential West Coast book, belonging on that one key bookshelf of anyone who wants to have a miniature library of what it means to live in this place. I'm giving a copy tomorrow to my brother-in-law for his birthday. He's had a 24' sailboat at a marina for two decades, and since I joined the family two decades ago, I've only seen it once, and it's only left the dock twice. This is exactly the book for him, and yet it's what this utter non-sailer needed as well.

A delight.


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