The beach talks to Miles O'Malley. At least that's what an insensitive reporter writes when covering the sensational story of the 13-year-old's...

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“The Highest Tide”
by Jim Lynch
Bloomsbury, 247 pp., $23.95

The beach talks to Miles O’Malley. At least that’s what an insensitive reporter writes when covering the sensational story of the 13-year-old’s discovery of a giant squid beached near his home on South Puget Sound.

In Olympia resident Jim Lynch’s debut novel, “The Highest Tide,” Miles is already a professional beachcomber. He collects and sells sea animals to restaurants and aquariums. He often works at night, paddling his kayak on the moonswept bay as day-shy marine life come out in droves.

In the shallows, Miles plucks sea stars and sea cucumbers, while terrorized by the sights and sounds of huge crab armies marching across the mudflats that form the very bottom of the long fjord.

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How could a giant squid, a species never before seen alive by a human, have traveled from the ocean depths all the way to the southernmost end of Puget Sound, before beaching itself, drawing one last breath — which Miles says he heard — and dying?

Coming up

Jim Lynch


The author of “The Highest Tide” will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com); 7 p.m. Oct. 5, Barnes & Noble, 1530 Black Lake Blvd. S.W., Olympia, free (360-534-0388); 7 p.m. Oct. 6, Tacoma Main Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma, free (253-591-5666); and at 7 p.m. Oct. 10, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Miles’ summer has just taken a radical turn toward the mysterious, and his sudden celebrity as discoverer of the giant squid cruelly invades his personal transformation from adolescent boy to young man.

Miles narrates, telling how his half-pint size embarrasses his dad, how his parents are possibly divorcing, how his sudden fame embarrasses him, how the reporters keep coming back, especially after Miles makes more strange discoveries on the tides.

Miles’ friend Kenny Phelps, a tall, angular, air-guitar player, delights in mocking Miles for his smallness, for his pale pink untannable skin, and for Miles’ preference for studying sea animals while Phelps’s favorite subject is women’s anatomies.

Phelps attempts to educate Miles in such critical areas as the “G spot,” while Miles hopes to impress Phelps with the mating lives of sea animals — barnacles, for instance:

” ‘Think about it,’ I urged. ‘They can’t move. They’re stuck for life wherever they land. So how do they get pregnant?’

“He shrugged. ‘Immaculate conception?’

” ‘Nope. Their penises are rolled up like fire hoses inside their shells. When the time is right, they unfurl them and feel around outside their shells for willing mates to shoot their loads inside.’

“Phelps laughed. ‘Come on. Fire hoses?’

” ‘That’s right. A barnacle’s penis can be four times as long as the diameter of its base. So, yeah, those four-inch-wide giant barnacles you see along the coast are packing sixteen-inch penises.’

But Phelps is more interested in teasing Miles about his secret crush on his former babysitter, Angie, who now sings (more like screams and whispers in Miles’ opinion) in a hard-rock band.

In truth, Miles is conflicted, in love with both Angie and with the ghost of Rachel Carson. To his regret, he quotes Carson to a reporter: “Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something.”

As summer deepens, Miles’ reputation for seeing things and for making profound, almost apocalyptic small talk has raised him in the eyes of many observers to the level of “seer.” But the youth’s poignant relationship with an elderly psychic complicates his celebrity.

This is just the unfolding of the tale; much more occurs during the most significant summer of Miles O’Malley’s life.

In this classic coming-of-age story, told with wry wit and quirky mating marine-life facts, nonfiction writer and first-time novelist Lynch has proved he can straddle the two forms, though he sometimes tries too hard to avoid the appearance of his protagonist’s narrative as lecturing.

Instead, Lynch (a former Oregonian and Seattle Times reporter) adopts the usually reliable device of placing factual information in dialogue when it might have, ironically, worked more naturally into the narrative.

Yet, the resulting moment or two of distraction — the reader desperately wants to get on with the story — doesn’t mar a fable so finely paced, so richly textured, that tiny missteps and occasional stiff prose are mere hiccups in the rising tide of an unforgettable story.

Unlike most first novels, Miles O’Malley’s story is simply too compelling to let go until the very last page, when the reader wonders what Lynch will write about next, secretly hoping Miles O’Malley will once again appear as the protagonist.

Skye Moody’s “Washed Up”, a nonfiction book about flotsam and jetsam, will be released by Sasquatch Books in 2006.