With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb’s charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.
Who is Lamb? He’s in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb’s father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There’s a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and “fake” kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it’s obvious something bad is going to happen. What’s not clear is what that event will be.
What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It’s a pleasure to read sentences like:
He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.
Another wonderful passage follows:
Let’s say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb’s truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin’s bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.
Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, “Our guy picked up her hand. ‘We’re just going to sit here a minute.’ He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone.” What makes Lamb “our guy”? Nadzam doesn’t give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It’s an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.
So much of the novel is driven by Lamb’s voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It’s a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.
Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They’re somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can’t move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own.