Olympia novelist Jim Lynch returns with “Before the Wind,” the story of an eccentric Seattle family of sailors whose resistance to change sometimes seems like the only tie that binds. Lynch reads in April at several Western Washington locations.
‘Before the Wind’
by Jim Lynch
Knopf, 290 pp., $26.96
After the release of Jim Lynch’s thoroughly captivating first novel, “The Highest Tide,” in 2005, the best-selling Olympia author followed up with interesting if ultimately less compelling detours through the Seattle World’s Fair (“Truth Like the Sun”) and up along the 49th parallel (“Border Songs”).
Now Lynch returns like a duck to water to a subject he seems to have an immense affinity for — the Salish Sea — and in his latest novel he once again captures some of that elemental profundity that made his first book so special.
“Do boats have souls?”
The author of “Before the Wind” will appear this month at these area locations:
•At 7 p.m. Monday, April 18, at the Jansen Art Center, 321 Front St., Lynden. Sponsored by Village Books in Lynden (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
•At 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com).
•At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, at Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. S.E.(360-352-0595 or trl.org).
•At 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
•At 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
That’s the question he asks in the first chapter of his new book, “Before the Wind.” But he’s really probing the essential life force of people, spending nearly 300 pages with the Johannssen clan, a family of geniuses and misfits that adheres to its Icelandic roots by feeling more at home at sea than on land.
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Josh is the 31-year-old narrator. His dad and grandpa own a Seattle boatbuilding company that designs and builds the fastest and comeliest fiberglass sailboats anywhere.
Younger sister Ruby explains why the family’s so good with boats: “We have a higher salt content in our blood!”
Older brother Bernard, who seems to have inherited the family’s cranky gene, is quick to point out that his sister’s claim may be based on a single blood test that indicated their grandpa, whom they call Grumps for good reason, had high sodium levels.
Whatever the actual facts may be, the Johannssen siblings are raised by elders who believe in the family’s exceptionalism. From an early age, they all show a talent for sailing — especially Ruby, who has an uncanny knack for reading the wind. But the kids also resent having sailing shoved down their throats by their bombastic dad. They grumble but remain obedient to him until one fateful race — Ruby is in the trials to land a place on the U.S. Olympic sailing team, and instead of crossing the finish line, she sails the opposite direction. On purpose.
This rebuff to their father’s ambitions seems to free Bernard. He takes off for adventures unknown, sending occasional cryptic messages over the next few years that hint at nefarious activities on the high seas. And as soon as Ruby’s done with high school, she leaves to serve aboard a Mercy Ship that dispenses medical treatment to African populations.
Josh, the mild middle kid, is last to leave. He doesn’t go far — just down to the end of Puget Sound where he sets up shop in a rundown marina and repairs boats for a living.
It’s easier than patching together a family that has fallen apart.
Lynch packs other stories into this book and employs them the way a sailor raises and lowers different sails for different wind conditions. There are story lines about Josh’s fiascos with dates arranged through an online service, and about the tribulations of the folks who live aboard their leaky boats in the backwater where Josh works.
More significant is the thread that follows Josh’s science teacher mom’s obsessive quest to explain how the commonly used but poorly understood Navier-Stokes equations work in the field of fluid dynamics.
It is no mistake that the very first word in this book is Einstein, or that the last chapter also invokes the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, who was an ardent amateur sailor. Lynch is writing about physics. About laws of attraction. About relativity and relationships.
The latter may always be more profoundly perplexing than the former — and that’s what makes for absorbing novels such as “Before the Wind.”