Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Highest Tide

Jim Lynch

There is a tradition that authors write a "coming of age" novel as a first book. This is something that a writer is supposed to get out of his system before getting on with the real work of writing literary fiction. The Highest Tide is Jim Lynch's coming of age novel. It is also a first class work of literary fiction.

Lynch's protagonist is Miles O'Malley, a thirteen year old boy who has a business, picking up sea stars, sand dollars and clams at low tide, in Skookumchuck Bay, near Olympia Washington, and selling them to aquariums, collectors and restaurants. He is also a voracious reader of books on marine biology and the shortest kid in his class. He has a crush on an older girl who used to be his babysitter and is now a punkish rock bass player and singer with a substance abuse problem and bipolar disorder.

The novel employs a kind of Pacific Northwest version of magical realism. Miles sets it up early wth this bit of narrative, "I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they'll think you're exaggerating or lying when you're actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can." Miles discovers a giant squid washed up on a mud flat and left, still alive, by the receding tide, then a rare deep ocean fish. Soon a major survey of it's marine life is ordered and all kinds of unusual sea creatures from all overt the world are being discovered in Skookumchuck Bay. Miles becomes the object of a media feeding frenzy, the leader of a new age "cult" uses him for her own aggrandizement and people begin to visit the bay to cure their ills by rubbing mud on themselves.

Through this mass of magic, media hype and marine biology there run threads in which Miles learns about love, sex, death, friendship, betrayal, courage, cowardice, honesty, dishonesty, success and failure. That's the "coming of age" part. Lynch also throws in an earthquake and a massive flood tide.

The only thing I didn't like about The Highest Tide is that it is a much shorter book than his second novel, Border Songs.


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