The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch; Bloomsbury, 2005; paperback, April
Thirteen-year-old Miles OMalley, who seems stuck in growth at four-foot-eight, is an
extraordinary little boy. He seems wiseand perhaps propheticwell beyond his years. How has he learned so much about life? From observing the
mud flats of Skookumchuck Bay in Olympia, Washington, where he is most likely to be found,
day or night, for Miles is an insomniac and is apt to drift to the flats at all hours.
Rachel Carson, whom he quotes, is an idol and mentor. It is with her keen eye that he sees
and studies the abundant sea life of the bay. When something unusual appears he may keep
it for his aquarium or sell it to a local (unscrupulous) buyer. But mainly he roams the
flats in awe of its diverse and teeming life.
One night he discovers a giant squid on the shore, such as would never appear in the bayor hardly anywhere else in the world for
that matter. Authorities are notified and scientists and the media rush to the site. Miles
is interviewed and becomes a kind of celebrity, an unwanted status which only intensifies
as the summer progresses and he happens upon a second bizarre find: a ragfish from the
seas deepest abyss, usually only found in the bellies of sperm whales; with yet more
freakish discoveries to follow.
Miles is filmed by the Olympia TV station and asked why so many unusual fish, not
indigenous to the area, are now appearing. "Maybe the earth is trying to tell us
something," he observes, immediately embarrassed by the trite and ready remark, which
the media plays up no end.
His best friend Brooks, more intertested in sex and playing air guitar than the sea, is
asked about Miles and quoted by the interviewers as saying: "Hes a freak.
Hes a decent enough guy, but hes a total freak when it comes to sea
life." His favorite adult friend, Professor Kramer, calls him a gifted child,
crediting him with two of South Sounds biggest finds ever; and Judge Stegner, his
neighbor, sings his praises as well. Somehow, though, one headline ends up: The Beach
Talks to Miles OMalley. And people begin to suspect he has a supernatural connection
to the sea.
A local cult, the Eleusinians, are interested in him and persuade him (against his
parents wishes) to visit their center and speak with their leader, a Mrs. Love.
But other things are on Miles mind besides fish and fame: he worries that his
parents are on the verge of divorce; and hes lovesick over Judge Stegners
daughter, Angela, his old babysitter, now a local rock star with a bipolar disorder. He
also worries about his old neighbor, Florence, who is daily becoming more and more
incapacitated by a cruel disease. He visits her regularly and listens to her psychic
predictions. Is she a genuine visionary? Shes made bad calls before, but what about
her two big predictions for that summer? If shes the real deal, Miles would like to
understand how she taps her power because maybe hes . . . well, maybe hes kind
of special himself though he maintains a modest profile.
It proves to be quite a summer all in all, but amidst the coming-of-age rituals and the
fantastic discoveries, what dominates the pages of this splendid debut novel is the awe
and mystery of the sea, and how an entire universe can be revealed to the careful observer
of a simple stretch of mud flat at low tide. Through Miles eyes we see the curious
life forms of nudibranchs, geoducks, giant sea cucumbers, peacock flounder, mola molas,
and moon jellies; and learn such facts such as that a barnacles penis can be four
times as long as the diameter of its base, rolled up like a fire hose inside its shell,
waiting for the right time to unfurl and feel around outside its shell for a willing mate.
"Most people realize the sea covers two-thirds of the planet, but few take the time
to understand even a gallon of it," Miles says. After reading The Highest Tide,
youll want to take the time. Youll want to dig out your Rachel Carson.
Youll want, in Miles words, to "pay attention." JA