At first glance, Jim Lynch's latest novel, Truth Like the Sun, is another political thriller that pits a ruthless reporter against a tight-lipped, golden-boy politician. Set in Seattle, the plot is reminiscent of the BBC miniseries State of Play, this time following newspaper reporter Helen Gulanos as she investigates golden-boy politician Roger Morgan Dawkins, the (fictional) mastermind behind bringing the 1962 World's Fair to Seattle. Impossible idealizations run amok in the novel; the city's precious reputation as the most livable city, most literate city, and most educated city, and Roger's own as the "father of Seattle." Though the story proves to be formulaic, fortunately, the novel works better as a parable about resisting black and white extremes and the ties that bind fathers and sons. Here, Lynch uses Morgan and the city's darling reputation to show that things are never black and white, and that the truth, per usual, is always a bit more grey.
Lynch wastes little time defacing the Emerald City, beginning by paying homage to the city's other notorious title--the most suicidal city--introducing Helen Gulanos as she responds to a report about a suicide jumper on the Aurora Bridge. Gulanos, a newcomer to Seattle and writer for the floundering Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is unaware of the bridge's number of attempted suicides since opening in 1932 and is appalled when a driver, frustrated at the traffic jam, yells "Just jump, bitch!" Whether the woman hears the taunt or not, she leaps off the bridge and leads Gulanos to muse that the city's reputation belies it true grit: "And even the city turned out to be a two-faced tease..."
Although Gulanos constitutes the bulk of the novel, the story is as much Roger's as it is Gulanos's. Indeed, the most interesting character in the novel is the specter threatening Roger's candidacy: his father. The senior Dawkins, as Roger--and the reader--learn, was a gambling addict who left his wife and son for Vegas, and it's this lack that drives Roger's past and limits his future. Though Roger drops the Dawkins from his name at age eighteen, he is only able to sever ties legally but not emotionally.
As the whiz kid responsible for bringing Seattle into the world's limelight, Roger spends his days entertaining Elvis and listening to Lyndon B. Johnson. At night, however, he retraces his father's footsteps into Seattle's thriving gambling underground, playing cards in hidden backrooms and asking around for Bobby Dawkins, claiming he's a distant relative. As Roger continues his search, he repeats the sins of the father (lowercase f--my Freud is rusty), becoming more entangled with the city's racketeers, corrupt police department, and grafters. By the time he declares his candidacy nearly four decades later, the father and son similarities extend beyond just a penchant for gambling.
Like Dawkins, Roger too is an absentee father. Though he has three children, Roger is never seen with them or gives any indication he is involved in their lives, physically at best and financially at worst, as Gulanos learns the candidate is broke. What's more, as the anointed father of Seattle, Roger's pattern of absenteeism is deepened, as he abandons the city shortly after the World's Fair ends, staying away for some time to travel to Spain, the Amazon, and more. After being away, he returns and declares his candidacy for mayor, surprising even his closest friends. When asked during a mayoral debate why he returned after being away so long, he paternally explains, "to help this city live up to its potential."
That the novel is about fathers and sons is unmistakable. Although single-mother Gulanos is often more concerned with her career than her son Elias, with many reviewers noting the scene where she eats the last egg and leaves only dry cereal for her son, he too is concerned about his lack of a father. On her way to interview an elderly man who has dirt on Roger and driving 100mph in her beat up sedan, her son suddenly asks, "Why don't I have a father?" and wonders if he should try to find him, eerily echoing Roger Morgan's own lifelong quest(ion).
Ultimately, the novel's strength resides in its depictions of characters whose ethics and motivations occupy a liminal, grey space between good and bad, moral and immoral. Roger Morgan is no more a corrupt politician than a man whose idealism blinded him from the greed he promoted. Helen Gulanos too is a no more an unfit mother than a woman caught up in the sexist discourse about whether women can truly "have it all," balancing her career with family.
This grey space also speaks both to Seattle's rainy reputation and its true character. Though Seattle may have been atop of many the most lists over the years, which utilize vague criteria and produce dubious titles, as a native Seattleite, I suggest that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Despite the city's impossibly stunning views, the city is far from utopia, as it suffers from severe racial segregation and classism. As far as titles go, Seattle is not the rainiest city in the country, nor it is not home to the most suicides per year--that title belongs to Las Vegas. The city, like the truth, is always a little bit more grey.