“Before the Wind” by Jim Lynch
“Chicago” by Brian Doyle
This spring, two of the Pacific Northwest’s top writers have come out with novels that are imbued with awakenings, informed by personal experience, and lightly gilded with enchantment.
In “Before the Wind,” Olympia author and sailing enthusiast Jim Lynch creates a modern saga with an eccentric family of Icelandic descent that sails the Salish Sea with fierce passion and fluid ease.
The story is told from Joshua Johannssen’s point of view. He has watched his family, despite their genius, disintegrate over the years.
As master sailboat builders, his grandfather and father focus on their craft to the exclusion of almost everything else. His mom is a science teacher obsessed with the study of fluid mechanics. Their intensity, passed down to Josh’s older brother Bernard and younger sister Ruby, was enough to make those two scatter to far corners of the globe as soon as they were able, while Josh has stayed closer to home, repairing boats for a living.
A decade later, Ruby — the one who always had an unnervingly exceptional gift for reading the atmosphere and knowing where the wind will come from before it actually shows up — proposes getting the family back together to compete in the Swiftsure, the Pacific Northwest’s premier long distance sailing race.
This event gives the Johannssens a second chance to learn how to navigate the tricky currents and unpredictable winds in life as well as on the water.
“Before the Wind” is Lynch’s best book since his beguiling debut novel, “The Highest Tide.”
The other book has defining waters of its own — Lake Michigan, the Chicago and Calumet Rivers, and pounding Midwestern rains. It is set in Chicago, which is also the title of the book by effusive Portland wordsmith Brian Doyle.
“Chicago” is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel. It is narrated by a young man who has just graduated from college and moved far from home to take a job at a Catholic magazine in the Windy City.
The young man rents an apartment and counts among his neighbors an assortment of nuns, a Tobagonian cricket player, a librettist, a gambler, some particularly natty gentlemen, an aging film actress, a cheetah expert, and especially these three: Miss Elminides (resident owner of his apartment building), Mr. Pawlowsky (the building manager), and the truly remarkable Edward, who may appear to be Mr. Palowsky’s canine companion, but is also most certainly his own man, so to speak.
Our young narrator lives and works in Chicago for five seasons, learning about life from gang members, cops, co-workers, bartenders, bus drivers, and the White Sox. He explores the lakeshore and the blues bars, the ball courts and the bookstores. But he learns the most from his neighbors, each of them more remarkable than they might seem at first glance, particularly the wise and gracious Edward.
Exploring the essence of a city that is multifarious, rambunctious, and bigger than life, Doyle follows in the footsteps of Sandburg, Terkel, and Royko. His novel, “Chicago,” is sublime.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.