When your kitchen is a mess—a plates-piled-high-in-the-sink, socks-getting-stuck-on-sticky-spots mess—how do you react? If you’re anything like me, a messy kitchen means that you clean up the coffee table in the living room or pick up clothes that have collected at the foot the bed. Rather than tackling dirty dishes, the grime on the sink, or whatever it is that has been growing behind the stove, I project the mess onto other portions of the apartment, allowing me to clean a minimal amount while still feeling accomplished for tackling a chore.
When we first meet David Lamb, the fifty-four year-old protagonist of Bonnie Nadzam’s beautiful, unsettling, and stunning debut novel Lamb, he has just buried his father, has recently divorced his wife, and has been forced to take a leave of absence from his job because of an affair he can’t seem to end with a younger colleague. In a word, David Lamb is a mess—a plates-piled-so-precariously-high-you’d-be-better-off-buying-a-new-set-of-dishes-at-K-Mart mess.
Early in the novel, when David Lamb’s work partner, Wilson, tells Lamb that he’s “kind of made a mess of things here,” Lamb acknowledges as much by saying “it’s been one thing after another.” To say that’s an understatement is an understatement. With a seemingly endless stream of manipulations and self-delusions, David Lamb has created an epic and unfathomable mess of his life. Rather than try to clean it up, he projects that mess onto someone else, so he can clean up her mess and accomplish a chore, a good deed. Enter Tommie.
Tommie is also a mess, but she hasn’t made one of herself. She is an unattractive and unpopular eleven-year-old. Her mother works all day and she doesn’t get along with her stepfather in their small suburban Chicago apartment. When her friends dare her to ask a stranger for a cigarette in a liquor store parking lot, and that stranger happens to be David Lamb, a strange, manipulative, unnerving and oddly genuine relationship is born: “Scrawny white arms and legs stuck out of her clothes. The shorts hung around her pelvic bones and her stomach stuck out like a dirty spotted white sheet. It was grotesque. It was lovely.” Nadzam not only has an eye for perfect though unflattering descriptions of her characters, she also possesses a keen eye for beautiful, lush descriptions of the natural world, especially after Lamb convinces the impressionable Tommie to join him on a week-long trip to his dilapidated cabin in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Just as Lamb convinces Tommie that the trip will let her into “this country’s secret heart,” Nadzam invites the reader to look into the country’s secret heart with lines that describe an America that is disappearing: “Outside the truck, before and beside and behind her, an endless span of blond grass and silver bitterbrush and greasewood and sage.”
Lamb abducts the willing Tommie and they strike out west. Outside of her dysfunctional home, Lamb believes he’ll show the self-conscious Tommie her own worth: “It was like he found a loose bolt out there in the world and had carefully turned it back into place.” The tension inherent in a story about a fifty-four year-old manipulating an impressionable eleven-year-old on a road trip builds as they drive further and further west of the Chicago suburbs: Will Lamb take the relationship too far? Will they be caught? Will Tommie realize the trouble she is in and find help? But Nadzam doesn’t rely on external tensions or melodrama to drive the momentum of the novel; rather, she lets the conflict between Lamb and Tommie, and Lamb and himself create tense scenes where by and large nothing really happens.
One of the most memorable aspects of Lamb is the sometimes obtrusive, always observant, and downright beguiling narration. In an interview, Nadzam herself has described the one-of-a-kind third-person narrator as more of a distant first-person point of view. The narrator introduces Tommie as “our girl,” David as “our man” and invites the reader to “pause” in order to contemplate how Tommie’s parents and friends are reacting to her disappearance. This manipulative narration—not so unlike the hyper-observant narrators in Terrence Malick’s films—may open up too many distracting questions for some readers who will wonder just who the narrator is: is it Tommie years later? Lamb himself? But for me, the narrator does not to distract; it adds a new layer of tension that implicates the reader in the action of the novel, becoming less a voyeur than an accomplice in the backseat of David Lamb’s truck.
With more questions than answers, Lamb demands a second or third reading to take in the lush descriptions, striking dialogue, and multiple layers of tension. As unsettling, terrifying and uncomfortable it is to be a willing participant in the backseat of Lamb’s truck while reading the novel, the view is undoubtedly amazing and worth revisiting, “all of it vast and unchanging, as though Lamb and the girl were at rest and not rushing west, a diffuse and unmappable destination.”
Other Press – September 2011
275 pages / $15.95 Trade Paperback