Riding a wave of youth
Desire and sea life, navigated by a boy
By Mia Geiger
Special to The Denver Post
Miles O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy who looks like he’s 9, talks like he’s 30, and has the heart of an old soul.
The lead character in Jim Lynch’s moving debut novel, “The Highest Tide,” wants nothing more than the love of his unfulfilled mother, the acceptance of his detached father and the affection of the wild, troubled girl next door.
What he gets is a summer that transforms the way he thinks about life. The story begins when Miles, a young expert of sea life who spends his free time along the waters of Puget Sound, becomes the first person to spy a live giant squid.
When he finds another ocean oddity and begins making statements to reporters like, “Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something,” the media and a cult dub him a prophet. His rescuing a dog and saving a friend from drowning only add to the frenzy.
Quiet, sensitive and brainy, Miles is uncomfortable with the adoration. He’s more interested in getting Angie, his ex-babysitter and a hellion, to notice him as a potential boyfriend. He’s also desperate to grow taller than his 4-foot-9-inch frame, which his father measures every month, and for his unhappy, disconnected parents to stay together despite talk of divorce.
The book reads like a memoir, with subtle writing that flows effortlessly and belies the wallop it packs. Lynch, a 43-year-old award-winning journalist, has created a compelling, multilayered protagonist, along with interesting and believable supporting players.
Among the characters is Kenny Phelps, a tough kid with movie-star looks and a teasing wit who plays Fonzie to Miles’ Richie Cunningham. He also spends time with and caring for Florence, a retired fortuneteller with a degenerative disease.
Despite some serious themes, the author weaves in funny scenes of adolescence, as when Miles and his friends, Phelps and Blister, call a 900 number and ask question after question to the woman on the other end, not realizing the
Throughout the story, Lynch seamlessly mixes in finely detailed, intriguing information about sea life. In one scene, Miles sneaks out of his bedroom late at night:
“I turned and paddled hard to the north, trying to feel the way I thought I should feel about overhearing my parents’ divorce chat. When I was six, my mother challenged me, in front of my cousins, to go one whole day without crying. I’d rarely cried since. Maybe that was part of it. The other part was it was hard for me to feel fear or sadness at dawn on that bay, especially when I knew the sun wouldn’t set for another fifteen hours and thirty-two minutes, and the water was so clear I could see coon-striped shrimp in the eelgrass near the tavern and the bottomless bed of white clam shells pooled across the sunken tip of Penrose Point.”
“The Highest Tide” rides the waves of adolescence, love, loss, hope and desire. It is at turns wryly funny, achingly sad and endearingly hopeful.
It’s the kind of book that sticks with you, and days later you find yourself realizing, “So that’s why Miles’ mom was constantly asking him, ‘Do you need anything?”‘ It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, and the kind you’ll pick up again.
Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.