There they are, thick on the ground in Jim Lynch's Truth Like the Sun: setups for familiar plot twists that allow a novel to trudge forward on autopilot, delivering nothing of value to either reader or author. Lynch's book, very good to begin with, is all the better for not exploiting such cheap tricks.
He tells a story with two main characters from vastly different worlds. Hack tradition dictates that these two ought to fall in love, discover a secret that links them inextricably, join forces to solve an age-old riddle, or otherwise sleepwalk through story threads that eventually intertwine. But Lynch's twosome, a 30-ish newspaper reporter and the much older bon vivant and "silver-tongued P.R. Hercules," who is known unofficially as "Mr. Seattle," are not dumbed down. They don't do any of the obvious things. And they are such fine creations that they can't be reduced to thumbnail descriptions.
Lynch's Helen Gulanos and Roger Morgan are glamorously smart throwbacks to character-driven independent films like The Parallax View (also set in Seattle) and reportage-driven fiction like Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. They ought to be natural enemies, this tenacious newspaperwoman and Seattle's best-oiled political fixer, but each half-secretly likes the other's style. The ways in which they connect, via tales of corruption bubbling beneath Seattle's boomtown prosperity, give Truth Like the Sun a whiff of that other unclassifiable classic, the movie Chinatown.
Cheap trick alert: Lynch divides his book between two time frames, cutting back and forth between them. The early part unfolds half a century ago and begins on April 21, 1962, with the opening of the Seattle World's Fair, also known as the Century 21 Exhibition. Roger is the fair's unofficial mayor and golden boy; he's the guy who sketched an idea for the Space Needle on a napkin and will spend much of the fair in that building's revolving restaurant, wining and dining a motley array of visiting celebrities. Ed Sullivan, Edward R. Murrow, John Glenn, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson come to town and make pronouncements. But it is Elvis Presley, of all people, whose words of wisdom give Truth Like the Sun its title.
Lynch has studded this book with historical details, like the fact that Elvis visited to shoot It Happened at the World's Fair. That the Space Needle began life as a sketch on a napkin is also true, and yet Roger Morgan is that wonder of wonders -- an original, flesh-and-blood creation. Like Thomas Mallon's recent Watergate, this book is enveloping and propulsive. Lynch does a seamless job of recasting real events to suit his storytelling.
When Truth Like the Sun isn't at the 1962 fair, it is 2001. By then Helen is newly arrived in Seattle, working for the Post-Intelligencer and seeking to make her reputation. She starts out doing routine work, from covering a bridge-leaping suicide attempt to writing about dot-com tycoons who have gone bust. Along the way, purely by chance, she finds herself at a party full of rich geezers at which Roger, still dashing in his 70s and by far the youngest man in the room, suddenly announces that he is running for office. After all these years as Seattle's unofficial mayor, he would like to become its real one.
Helen's news instincts are sharp. She knows that the dot-com flops "pretty quickly boiled down to rich kids getting drunk and puking on themselves," whereas the Roger Morgan story is a potential stunner. So Helen begins tracking Roger, looking into his past and Seattle's, which are so intertwined. Seattle did not evolve from "some city they still think rhymes with beetle" into a red-hot center of progress and opportunity without an element of sub rosa corruption. Helen wonders what, if anything, Roger had to do with that.
Cheap trick alert, again: This is not a book in which one character bravely exposes the dirty secrets of another. Helen is no crusading saint. She pushes newspaper ethics to the limit and beyond. She is the kind of single mother who, if there is one egg in the house, will eat it herself and give her kid cereal. She is the kind of reporter who will worm her way into a room in a nursing home to interview an unsuspecting old lady, Roger's mother. That his mother is an Anglophile, loves having Roger read the Harry Potter books to her, and confuses the Duke of Edinburgh with Dumbledore are just part of this novel's unpredictable charm.
There is much marveling to be done as Truth Like the Sun unfolds. Lynch captures the excitement of a fair that proudly showed off the world of tomorrow but inadvertently revealed more than it should have. There is Roger's astonishing charm: Here is a man who can size up anyone in a heartbeat, can work a funeral as easily as he works political rallies, and simply doesn't lie. He is so good at what he does that Helen winds up feeling "charmed, flustered, and conned" when she tries to grill him. "You people don't reward the truth," he finally says of Helen's profession. In the context of the way newspaper writers and editors behave in this book, he is not wrong.
Ultimately Helen is one very dangerous reporter, born too late to realize her dreams of newspaper-business glory and all the more aggressive in that frustration. Lynch, with his own background in journalism, brings her fully to life, both visually -- with hair that bounces "like tumbleweed on a pogo stick" -- and morally. "She's the perfect age," Roger's closest aide warns him. "Old enough to know how to make you look like hell, young enough to think she's justified."
It's impossible not to hurtle through Truth Like the Sun to see where Helen's determination to nail Roger, and Roger's determination to stay as honest with Seattle as he is with himself, will lead.