Jim Lynch

"The Highest Tide"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann DEC 12, 2005)

"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."  So begins Jim Lynch's extraordinary first novel about a runty teenage boy who knows more than the local marine biologist about the teeming life in the mud flats of Puget Sound and its coves.  Narrator Miles O'Malley is a "an increasingly horny, speed-reading thirteen-year-old insomniac" who takes his battered kayak into the sound at night while his parents and the rest of the town sleep.  He collects unusual specimens for aquariums and collectors, and digs for clams with his friend Phelps to sell to local restaurants.  In the middle of the night, Miles hears the final exhalation of a dying giant squid, its arms "as big around as my ankle," its suckers as large as "half dollars," and its single eye "the size of a hubcap."   His discovery of the enormous creature never before found on the shores of North America prompts a rush of media attention.  At first, no one questions how Miles managed to find the squid in the middle of the night despite his poorly fabricated lie, but when he discovers other non-native sea life and anomalies in the sea and tidal pools, he becomes an object of local fascination.  The truth leaks out even as Miles tries to keep quiet.  Reporters arrive to interview him.  A cult reveres him as a messenger.  Scientists are both furious with him for knowing more than they and drawn to his exotic discoveries.  He is labeled a child genius.  But Miles just wants to remain invisible.  He is neglected by his parents, who have their own problems, and he struggles with his awkward crush on  Angie, an eighteen-year-old, body-pierced girl who plays bass in a grunge band.

Miles is an avid reader of Rachel Carson and her moving descriptions of the ocean, but Lynch, through the voices of Miles, offers his own memorable descriptions of the life that depends on Puget Sound: "A few minutes later, I saw five toothpick-legged sandpiper scissor-stepping across the flat in such choreographed precision I half-expected them to start twirling canes and whistling in unison."  Lynch's lyrical prose is not reserved only for the mud flats, however, as he is equally adept at describing characters and other settings.  The narrative voice, with its honesty, wry humor, and poetic language, distinguishes this novel from so many other coming-of-age stories.  Insightful without being dogmatic, sensitive without being melodramatic, the prose finds the perfect balance and pitch.  Not unlike the earthquake that rattles Olympia––"it shook us just long enough and hard enough to make us feel helpless . . . and just short enough and mercifully enough not to kill us"––the writing makes the reader question his assumptions about the uniformity of marine life and of personal experience.  

The odd life Miles leads makes room for his friendships with Angie, her father Judge Stegner, the neurologically-impaired psychic Florence, and air-guitar strumming Phelps.  These disparate characters are so connected to who Miles is that they define him as much as they do themselves. Phelps' obsession with girls, breasts, and the mysterious G-spot becomes Miles' own. Florence's predictions of disaster are co-opted by Miles in a moment of weakness. Judge Stegner's insights about Angie, as cryptic as they are to Miles, become Miles's way into her confidence.  Everything that happens in the novel is as entwined as the mating sea worms that churn in the bay.

With this impressive debut, Lynch proves himself a writer to watch.  His confident style guides the reader through an odd yet believable world where sea stars can be of any color and thirteen-year-old boys can befriend judges, psychics, and cult leaders.   Barnacles can wow boys with their sexual prowess, and prehistoric ragfish can wash ashore into contemporary life. Nothing, however, remains as mysterious as the relationship between Miles's parents. This tender, lyrical story about an inquisitive insomniac never fails to charm.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 72 reviews

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About the Author:

Jim LynchJim Lynch has won national journalism awards and published short fiction in literary magazines, and he spent four years as the Puget Sound reporter for the Oregonian. A Washington State native, Lynch currently writes and sails from his home in Olympia, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

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