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Truth Like the Sun

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Last April, when Jim Lynch’s Seattle-based novel Truth Like the Sun appeared, I saw Janet Maslin’s strong review in the NYT and was tempted to read it. It has two principal characters—the fictional man behind the success of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter covering the 2001 Seattle mayoral race—with chapters alternating between the two eras. Reading it might be an entertaining way to get a sense of the Seattle of Gail’s childhood, as well as to see how a local former Seattle Times reporter (Lynch) treats the history and politics of the city.

I didn’t pursue the opportunity at the time, and soon forgot about it. But two weeks ago, Maslin included the novel on her list of ten favorite books of 2012.

Gimmick-free and uncategorizable, this is just a flat-out great read with the spirit of a propulsive, character-driven 1970s movie. Drawing on the history of the 1962 World’s Fair and its Space Needle, Mr. Lynch pairs unlikely antagonists: an old-school political fixer blessed with immense charm, and an overeager newspaperwoman whose research, done in 2001, has the power to destroy him. They never behave predictably, and their showdown lingers long after Mr. Lynch’s story is over.

I wouldn’t forget this time. I added the book to my reading list. Saturday night I started it and today I finished it.

The fabric of Seattle is so intricately woven into the novel that I can’t assess how much someone unfamiliar with the city would enjoy it. Certainly any possible parochialism didn’t deter Maslin, while adding added to my enjoyment, as Lynch would repeatedly include familiar details. But the heart of the story and the source of its richness is its two principal characters, regardless of place. I grew especially fond of the man, but found the woman less convincingly drawn. Yet, Lynch’s treatment of her struggle with journalistic ethics in covering the mayoral race felt real. Less so was his portrayal of her as the single mother of a young boy.

What especially rings true is Lynch’s treatment of Seattle boosterism. I well remember, on my arrival thirty-plus years ago, reading regularly about how special Seattle was. Most boats owned per capita of any city in the US! (True or not, I don’t know.) Why, you’d think no other city lies on the water.

Funny thing is, I grew up on an island, with lots of bays and inlets. There was one bridge to the mainland, with the exciting opening of a second when I was eight. Plus four bridges and two tunnels to another island, an island with the then-tallest building in the world and many other wonders. Water water everywhere. Then I moved to another water-based pair of cities, with a river running from the suburbs right between the two before going through a lock and into the bay. Next up, for just a year, a city on a gigantic lake, with miles and miles of shoreline, marinas, and the then-tallest building in the world. For good measure, I spent most of that winter living just above the beach on the northern edge of another water-based city, with a big bay that the US Navy favored and miles of Pacific coast.

This isn’t a criticism of Seattle. Just that on hearing about all the boats, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. I’d never known life in a place with anything other than lots of boats. New York. Cambridge/Boston. Chicago. San Diego. Seattle is distinctive in its own way. Long and thin, with Puget Sound the full length of the west side, Lake Washington the full length of the east, Lake Union smack in the middle above downtown, an east-west run of canals and waterways that bisect the city and connect Lake Union to Lake Washington and the Sound. Indeed, in contrast to the other cities, you’re never far from water here. Plus, hills! Mountains! Hey, it’s pretty cool. But why count the boats?

Then there was the oft-quoted fact(?) that Seattle had the second most members of Actors Equity per capita. That’s impressive. You’d think LA and New York would be at the top. What’s Seattle doing beating one of them out? Yet, let’s face it, the best actors eventually leave. There’s that guy who had the lead in many Seattle Rep plays, until he packed up and went to LA for parts in TV series. (Gail, what’s his name?) One holdout is Tom Skerritt, who despite a career in Hollywood continues to make his home here, in our very neighborhood. But that’s different. He doesn’t actually perform here. Just lives here.

Anyway, it’s true, Seattle has an active theater life, as attested to by the Outstanding Regional Theater Tony awards won by the Rep and the Intiman. (While I’m at it, let me plug the Professional Actor Training Program at the University of Washington and our amazing faculty.) But again, why count the actors?

Lynch’s novel reminded me of all this, capturing the booster spirit of the fair that put Seattle on the map. At least that’s the usual story line.

And by the way, have I told you about the great companies that were founded here? Boeing (and United and UPS)? Microsoft? Starbucks? Costco? Amazon? The entrepreneurial spirit of Seattle!

Yes, we’re still at it with this boosterism.

I’ll leave you with this. For decades we had the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Take that LA, San Francisco, Houston, and Dallas.

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