Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb
February 3, 2012, 11:06 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Disclaimer: Other Press provided this book for review via NetGalley.

It’s easy to see why so much of the discussion around Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb is about Nabokov’s Lolita. Both novels are about middle-aged men who head off on roadtrips with young girls. To draw a line between the two novels, though, is oversimplistic and misses much of what the novels are truly concerned with. In Lolita, it’s time and memory and the ways Humbert Humbert marks himself not only as an unreliable narrator, but as one actively (and successfully) working to garner our sympathies or at least suspension of judgement. In Lamb, it’s about the titular character’s efforts to tell some story of his life, to the girl he abducts, to the reader, and to himself, that marks him out as a good person.

Nadzam doesn’t fully explore David Lamb’s reasons for abducting Tommie, or the reasons for his attraction to this unremarkable girl, but such an explanation never feels needed in the context of the novel. When Lamb opens, David Lamb is at his lowest: he has just buried his father, his wife has left him and is ignoring his efforts at reconciliation, he is enmeshed in an affair with a co-worker he doesn’t care for, and his former friend and current boss is pushing him out of his job because of this affair. After his father’s wake, smoking a cigarette in a parking lot, Lamb is approached by Tommie, whose friends have dared her to bum a cigarette from him.

She was coming toward him in a crooked purple tube top and baggy shorts and brassy sandals studded with rhinestones. She carried a huge pink patent leather purse and was possibly the worst thing he’d seen all day. Scrawny white arms and legs stuck out of her clothes. The shorts hung around her pelvic bones and her stomach stuck out like a filthy spotted white sheet. The skin on her belly, God, that sheen or purple filth sprayed across her flesh. It was grotesque. It was lovely. Freckles concentrated in bars across her cheekbones and down the tiny ridge of her nose and the slightest protruding curve of her forehead just above her eyebrows. There were huge freckles, pea sized, and smaller ones. Some faint, others dark, overlapping like burnt confetti on her bare shoulders and nose and cheeks. He stared at her. He had never seen anything like it.

Tommie gets the cigarette, but she also gets a “lesson” in the form of a pretended kidnapping. Lamb talks her through it, but all the same he pushes her into his car while her friends watch, then drives her around, giving her this lesson, before returning her to her home. What defines Nadzam’s novel is Lamb’s self-talk; he tries, again and again, to find some decency in his self and his actions. Striken with guilt over his “kidnapping” of Tommie, he thinks:

That wasn’t kidnapping. It had been a favor, right? A lesson. He hadn’t kidnapped anyone. She was back in her apartment, having dinner with her parents, her girlfriends perhaps chastened of whoring each other out for laughs in parking lots. It wasn’t kidnapping when the kid ended up safely delivered home in better shape than she left in the morning. It was like he found a loose bolt out there in the world and had carefully turned it back into place. It was fine.

The girl isn’t fine, of course, and when she returns to the same place and meets Lamb again, he views it as an opportunity to continue bettering her. It’s Tommie’s absolute lack of extraordinary features, either mental or physical, that draws Lamb to her; he doesn’t view anything he does with her, or to her, as a wrong, but as a means to bettering her, to giving her something to mark what will be an otherwise dreary life.

His thoughts washed back and forth between pitying the child and wanting to crush her, stamp her out for her own sake. Because he knew exactly what the rest of her life would be after he returned her, and it was a bleak and terrible secret that he and all the world were keeping from her, and his withholding was the worst of all, because his presence in her life – this sudden and unusual friendship – might be the only bright spot, the only break in an otherwise scripted life. She was an arm’s length away. He could reach her, he could show her something else, just briefly, just for a page of her life.

What Lamb decides to show her is what life is outside of a city, and here the true horrors of the novel begin. Lamb never seems to quite move beyond the idea that this brief period of her life, of cooking over campfires and taking day-long hikes with a man over forty years her senior, will in some fundamental way change and improve Tommie’s life. It is hard not to shy away from the descriptions of Lamb’s increasing physical intimacy with Tommie. Worse than that, though, are the moments Nadzam gives entirely to his thoughts and his efforts to craft the story of his life with Tommie. She writes that “He wasn’t ready to surrender the story he thought he was in”, and more than that, he isn’t ready to let Tommie have any story other than the one he creates for her. Again and again, Lamb pushes Tommie, questioning her until her version of events lines up with his own.

In such a short book, that deals not with prelude or consequences, Nadzam offers the reader not just Lamb’s twisted worldview, but the act of creating that world. David Lamb may well be one of the least sympathetic characters in fiction, but it is nevertheless gripping to watch as he develops his own story; and not merely to watch, but to recognize how nearly his acts of storytelling and world creation align with our own. Lamb is a novel that demands to be read, and is often best in the moments we most want to look away.


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