Business took me to Portland last week, and so of course, I made my way to Powell’s at the end of a long day working. I brought home Jim Lynch’s “Truth Like the Sun,” a pretty decent novel about a Mayor’s race in Seattle in 2001 and the World’s Fair in 1962.
I’m a sucker for mayoral elections, so I was excited to read this book. It didn’t disappoint, but it didn’t blow my mind either.
Lynch alternates back and forth between 2001 and 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair. In 1962, Roger Morgan is the 30-something citizen advocate who spearheads the World’s Fair. In 2001, Morgan is a septuagenarian who decides to finally enter politics and run for mayor. Great potential here. Morgan wants to be a truth-teller, a politician who steps forward to serve. An honorable man. Of course, after forty years in the public eye, Morgan has some skeletons that come rattling out of the closet, thanks to a dippy reporter named Helen.
On his own, Morgan could have been a great character. We see him in 1962—an inquisitive and ambitious leader, alternating between the civic high life and the low life card games in the back rooms of dive bars. We don’t know how he went from some kid with a difficult childhood to a civic pioneer. And just as quickly as we hurtle to 2001, we don’t get a clear picture of Morgan’s career post World’s Fair. We don’t quite get his motives for jumping back into politics. And his campaign is merely a backdrop for the interplay between him and the reporter.
Unfortunately, the “best” picture of Morgan comes to us through the shoddy “reporting” of Lynch’s second main character, Helen. Rarely do I despise a character like Helen. She was as tired as an old dog. A single mom who has a nose for hard-edged reporting, Helen just comes off like someone with a grudge. (She is from Youngstown, where grudges are regularly on sale three-for-a-dollar at every corner market.) She says she believes in truth and justice…but actually that’s just a cover for being a cynical reporter who believes all politicians peddle bullshit. So, intent on finding something, she digs as deep as possible, uncovers a shiny rock, and before she can tell whether it is pure gold or pyrite, she files her stories. And Morgan is implicated in scandal by innuendo.
It turns out Morgan’s skeletons were no worse than those that we learn about Helen. But because Helen works for someone who buys ink by the barrel, she wins.
I’m being tough on this novel because I liked Roger Morgan and I kept fantasizing about the prospect of some 70-year-old showing up to right the ship of the city that I live in. Wouldn’t that be fun? Some proven civic leader who has a great independent profile? Someone who spent his or her life helping the city but never running for office? That alone could be an entertaining story. So in this book, I think Roger gets a raw deal.
I suppose that my view here is colored by my past and my involvement in politics. Maybe my reporter friends would be cheering on Helen. The plot that the author develops implies the author is a goo-goo—someone who believes all elected officials are corrupt and we’d be better off with thousands of city managers running urban America.
This book is a good choice if you like city and urban politics. The World’s Fair history—a factual portrayal—is like staring at a picture of a toddler that you know as an adult. You see Seattle in its youth; we know it now as all grown up. Elvis and Lyndon Johnson show up for a few pages. And some of the campaign scenes are clever. (Young volunteers hold signs that say “Vote for the Old Guy.”)
And, though I wasn’t a fan of how the story came together, I was reading this like a page-turner. It kept my complete attention, kept me up late one night, and stirred me to think about the possibilities of this kind of story in my own city. If that was Lynch’s mission, well, consider it accomplished.
Thanks for reading.