Clam Spit and the Seattle World’s Fair

February 23, 2013   •   By Jo Giese

AFTER MY GRANDMOTHER DIED in 1962, my mom blew her entire inheritance on a red Ford Sunliner convertible. She drove my brother, my baby sister, and my 15-year-old, bikini-clad, sun-seeking self, all the way from Houston to Seattle to visit her mother's grave, and — ta dah! — to see the Seattle World's Fair.

On the infinitely long 1200-mile car ride, we argued about what we'd do once we got to the Fair — ride all the way up to the top of the Space Needle, whiz around on the monorail, tour a house of the future! — all with different ideas about what we had to race to see first. Now that World's Fairs are so ho-hum and passé it’s hard to imagine how exciting and exotic a destination the Seattle World’s Fair loomed for my family and hundreds of thousands of others.

So I approached Jim Lynch's novel Truth Like the Sun, set at that fair in 1962 and in Seattle in 2001, with curiosity and expectation. How well would this ex-reporter, who was born and raised in Seattle, capture the Fair frisson of 1962? 

In chapters alternating between his two time periods, Lynch chronicles the deep contrasts that 40 years bring: how a small, rainy outpost that was home to a flailing Boeing, morphed into an powerful global magnet attracting the likes of Microsoft, Starbucks, Nordstrom, and Costco. He focuses on two protagonists, both of them ambitious: Roger Morgan, aka “Mr. Seattle,” is the charismatic mastermind who dreamed up the 1962 Fair, and Helen Gulanos, a young reporter recently transplanted from the Midwest, has the fluff assignment of writing about the Fair on its 40th anniversary. Both are refreshingly multidimensional and flawed. Morgan is attracted to and seduced by drinking and gambling and hob-nobbing with the rich and famous. Helen leads a scrappier life, scratching out a professional reputation while at the same time raising her six-year-old son by herself.

In 2001 when Helen, who is a reporter for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, shows up to cover Roger Morgan’s 70th birthday party, she couldn’t recall seeing so many old people in one place before, and as she takes in the gathering of fading doctors, lawyers, tycoons and their wives, Lynch writes, "Almost any crescendo of detail absorbed and soothed her. No need to tell the readers much. Just be their eyes."

A far cry from the dystopic novels where nihilistic characters slog it out in a dysfunctional family or in a shattered post-nuclear universe, Lynch treats his characters with affection. He wrestles with important, timely themes — politics, local and national, American boosterism and corruption, the falling circulation of big city newspapers — and although life can be skanky and dirty, and sometimes some people may make less than honorable choices, they can also still treat each other with kindness and respect, and unexpected surprises can happen. 

Lynch has a particularly perfect ear for the elderly — whether it’s Morgan’s mother who lives in an upscale nursing home; Teddy, his 77-year-old campaign manager; the ailing ex-cop who has the damaging goods on the young Morgan; or the many women Morgan chased in his youth who reappear as their elderly selves — Lynch renders each in beautiful telling detail.

In one scene, 70-year-old Roger, dead tired from doorbell ringing for his campaign, soaks his hip and ankle in his bathtub. Teddy, his campaign manager sets a can of Rainier on the tub, averts his eyes, then lowers the toilet lid and sits down with a groan.

After a discussion of the current campaign, Teddy sheepishly raises his chin and glances into the mirror.

“I used to be over six-two, Rog. A less honest man would have called himself six-three. Now I’m barely five-eleven. I weigh what I did in when I was in high school. I avoid mirrors these days and shave in the shower,” he mumbled, rubbing sections of whiskers he’d missed, “which has its downsides, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Actually,” Roger said. “you’re still the best-looking man I know.”

“That’s not exactly what I want to hear from a naked man in a bathtub.”

Lynch keeps his many elderly characters appealing and embraceable. By email, I asked Lynch what was the secret behind this tender wisdom. He replied, “My grandmother endeared me to the elderly forever. A few years ago I volunteered to lead a current events discussion at a retirement home. So many personalities. So much character.”

A reporter for 18 years, five of them as a reporter for the syndicated muckracker Jack Anderson, Lynch also clearly enjoys giving the reader an insider’s glimpse into the world of the newsroom and editorial meetings. On the eve of Helen’s exposé about Morgan, for instance, Lynch writes:

It’s impossible to know for sure how a story will play outside the newsroom. Sometimes the hardest ones to report and craft, those designed to expose an outrage, are greeted with yawns while cheesy no-brainers capture the public’s mood like catchy songs. And occasionally there are stories crafted well enough to jolt your colleagues and blessed with enough timing to enter the zeitgeist and become talkers. Helen’s “Mr. Seattle” was one of those.

Lynch shows us how good reporters think: 

Helen had always been able to sense when somebody was about to say something that might give a story life. The catch was, you had to be the sort of person they wanted to tell it to, and everyone’s different. Some need to be shoved. With others you just hunkered down, and waited quietly, like birds do when they feel the air thinning before a storm.

Truth Like the Sun is the sort of fast-paced, excellent storytelling you don’t want to end. And Lynch gets the unique seascape that is the Pacific Northwest. “Taste that salty air. Smell the clam spit,” he writes in the first paragraph. Clam spit! I was hooked.