Posts Categorized: Bonnie Nadzam

Review: Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam

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.

Reading: 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

If you read my review of the excerpt, "Town of Cats", you'll remember I was not a fan of it. However, that didn't stop me from buying 1Q84 and giving it a chance. Excerpts are basically marketing ploys. They don't work as a stand alone piece very often, but they might introduce a reader to an author or novel, which would otherwise be missed. That's the reason I picked up Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam. Unfortunately, I picked up 1Q84 at the same time, so Lamb must wait.

Going back to 1Q84, though, it's wonderful so far. I'm about 140 pages into it and can't stop reading. Of course, it is trademark Murakami. Reality blends into something not quite right. Characters are outside the mainstream. Music and Americana are often referenced. It's hard to tell where the story may go. It's not bad for an author's style or pattern to stand out so clearly. With Murakami, you know what you're getting. It's like going into a restaurant for your favorite meal. There's an expectation and while each Murakami novel is different, they are all completely recognizable. So if you were on the fence about the book, hop down and read it.

Short Story: The Losing End – Bonnie Nadzam

Bonnie Nadzam's short story "The Losing End" published in the August 2011 issue of Harper's is a glimpse of a man in a moment.  Time is sliced to a span of a few hours.  The main character, Lamb, aimlessly stands around a bus stop after his father's funeral.  The setting is made of low rent sprawl: Courtesy Loans and Freeway Inn.

In the next paragraph time shifts.  Lamb reflects on the past year.  On "Cathy in gold eyeglasses trimming the tapered ends of French beans, while Linnie rang the cell phone in his pocket."  This is the setup.  Nadzam shifts back into the present.  Shifts back to Lamb waiting for trouble, waiting for something.  That something is a teenage girl "in a lopsided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-colored sandals studded with rhinestones."  Lamb thinks of her as "grotesque" and "lovely" and views her as "a pale little freckled pig with eyelashes."  The girl's friends dared her to ask Lamb for a cigarette.  The exchange between the two is dicey.  Lamb is not in his right frame of mind.  Or is he?  Like the girl, the reader has only just met Lamb.

The story takes a turn as Lamb suggests a pretend kidnapping to show the girl's friends not to make fun of her.  Fear takes over.  She doesn't agree.  She's forced into his truck.  Lamb takes her to her home, but yells at her "like he thought a father would have done." After this incident, he looks at himself as the girl may have viewed him with "his expensive suit, the Jeep Cherokee, the leather seats, his clean haircut, his smooth face, everything clean, everything expensive, everything easy."

In the evening, after Lamb has justified his actions to himself, he's back at a hotel where he's living.  "Across the hall was another man, just like him.  Both their beautiful houses for sale.  Both their aging wives back on the market."  He imagines the young woman Linnie, but then calls Cathy.  Her number's been changed.  He imagines a new courtship period with her and how they'll get back together.  This time, he calls Linnie, lies to her and coaxed her to have phone sex with him.

The story ends with Lamb a little drunk and thinking of the teenage girl.  "He hoped he hadn't hurt her.  He hadn't exactly been thinking clearly.  But he hadn't meant to hurt her.  He was not that kind of man."

All of these details come together to show a broader view of Lamb than a man burying his father.  He's cheated on his wife.  Lives in a hotel.  He routinely lies to women and himself.  He and Cathy have no children.  Is he thinking of the girl at the end or his wife?  Was this afternoon a microcosm of the past year?  Lamb's father's funeral is a bit of a red herring.  It's an excuse for his actions, but he doesn't seem to be grieving; though, it does provide a hint of a missing father figure in Lamb's life.  When I think of the title, "The Losing End" I think that everyone in the story is on the losing end.  Everyone is hurt; everyone is damaged.  It seems that Lamb instigated the affair, but to what end?