Bonnie Nadzam has written an insightful, fascinating character study, supported by a gift for landscape description, but marred by some inconsistency.
David Lamb is middle-aged, a liar and a loser, a narcissist and a dreamer, a kid who never really grew up. Living alone in a hotel with other marital flotsam, he pines for his ex, thinks about having been with her sister, then calls his girlfriend, a Princeton grad he bangs in hallways. Dave is full of promises, and espouses idealized aspirations, but he always runs rather empty on delivery. After his father’s funeral, Dave is sitting in a parking lot, wallowing in his existential crisis when a child approaches.
Tommie, not the prettiest rose in the bunch, lives in a world where supper might be a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and tailoring one’s shirt entails liberal use of a stapler. Her mother’s bf is the slovenly Jessie, not enough interested in Tommie to look up from his TV sports. On a dare from not-really friends, she walks up to Dave as he ponders life and bums a cigarette. He is drawn to her. Not in the creepy way you are probably figuring about now. He sees that this innocent is being toyed with by cruel children and offers to help her get back at them by pretending to kidnap her. A sort of friendship grows between the two. He tells her “I don’t exactly have any friends in this town.” “That makes two of us,” she says. Tommie’s innocence appeals as a salve to his corruption, their loneliness a bond. Dave wants to help her, teach her, show her things, buy her things. It is unclear just what it is that Dave wants from this pre-adolescent girl. In some of his imaginings they are like father and child, in others, odd-couple pals. But dark thoughts bubble through about wanting to destroy her tiny beacon of light with his emptiness. And there is cringe material as well, as Dave is not always exactly appropriate with his very young companion. Tommie is eager to experience something of the world beyond her stultifying enclave.
This is one of the odder buddy books I have read. Both Dave and Tommie are living lives of quiet desperation, and Nadzam has a gift for using landscape description as the expression of their hopelessness. The book opens with:
We’ll say this all began just outside of Chicago, in late summer on a residential street dead-ending in a wall. It was the kind of wall meant to hide freeways from view, and for miles in each direction parallel streets ended at the same concrete meridian. No trees on the lawn, no birds on the wires, Northern shrikes gone, little gray-bellied wrens gone. Evening grosbeaks and elm trees and most of the oaks and all the silver brooms of tall grass and bunch flowers and sweetfern and phlox gone. Heartsease gone. About the tops of upturned trash bins, black flies scripted the air.”
I was hooked from word one. Nadzam’s gift for description litters the rest of the tale, a presence. In one passage, she uses landscape to ironic effect.
While the girl was in the bathroom at a Chevron in a travel stop off I-80, Lamb bought two postcards and walked outside to the edge of the broken asphalt where trash and weeds grew in a ragged line and broken glass glittered in the daylight. It was hot, and everything looked new, lighter, open.
In another she captures Dave’s sense that he is missing out on life:
he scanned the horizon and the ground beneath his feet for something green, for a place where he could press his cheek against warm dirt, for anything like a loophole, a chink, a way out. Nothing before him but the filthy streets and bright signs announcing the limits of his world: Transmission Masters and Drive Time financing and Drive-Thru Liquors and Courtesy Loans and Office Depot and a Freeway Inn and a Luxury Inn and a Holiday Inn. If there was something beneath, something behind, it was hidden from him.
But Dave has a vision of a purer place and time, a place in the Rockies, with “a line of broken-toothed mountains…a swimming hole. A river. Trees and clear skies.” Later, “The kid couldn’t know what she was missing, the depths to which she was being duped by a world she had no hand in making.” He really does want something better for her.
It is this something that the pair hit the road to find. Of course, this is an America in which even the Rocky Mountain high has been brought low. The idyllic mountain pastures Dave promotes are filled with cow patties, broken fences, a shortage of indoor heat and suspicious neighbors.
The triumph of the book is in its portrayal of Dave Lamb. In Dave’s vision of himself, or his vision of a moment, he sees a truthseeker
“Look at me. I might be a lot of things, but I’m not a liar, okay?”
“There’s precious little truth in this world, and I am one of its most enthusiastic spokespeople. Okay?
saith the liar.
Like all narcissists, Dave objectifies the people he encounters. He describes his nominal girlfriend thus:
A heart-stoppingly beautiful young woman. An expensive and well-educated system of reactions and responses, and he knew them all. Had known them, frankly, since years before she was born.”
Yet, his affection for Tommie seems genuine. Is it? Or has he created a virginal ideal he can use to gain some feeling of power by conquering? His narcissism causes him to believe his own BS. He sells Tommie a fantasy, but even that pitch is off, beginning with natural beauty in a high, sage-filled valley, but mixing in oddities like a cooler full of Mexican beer and a braided rug on a concrete floor.
A lot of the book is Dave’s internal debate.
“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.”
Dave’s whims, his impulses rule and his gift of professional level bullshit lets him get away with the most ridiculous actions. One could certainly think that the author asks us to accept too much acceptance on the part of the people Dave cons. But those of us who have known people of a narcissistic bent can attest to their uncanny powers of persuasion. That is a characteristic that Nadzam has portrayed to perfection here. Dave told Tommie that his name was Gary.
“I think I maybe want to call my mom.”
“In the morning?”
“What do you want to tell her?”
“Just that everything is okay, and I’m okay, and don’t worry.”
“Do you think she’ll probably worry anyway?”
“Do you think a phone call might make her worry more?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should think about that.”
Dave has a lawyer’s ability to take your words and make them seem to mean the exact opposite of what you intended. He could be a camp guard telling the inmates that everything was ok, and would they please hurry along to get their delousing showers.
So do they or don’t they? There is one scene in which I suspected they had, but a GR friend whose opinion I respect believes otherwise. So, it is ambiguous. I confess that I did have certain standard expectations for the ending, but I was surprised at the direction the author chose.
For those who see Lolita
here, the author says not so much. But she was
influenced by another Nabakov work, one about Don Quixote.
Don Quixote, he writes, “is a kind of treatise about how meaning gets into things and lives. It is a book about enchantment, the inappropriateness of enchantment in a disenchanted world.” (http://harpers.org/archive/2011/08/hbc-90008182 )
The author also was expressing in this book regret at the pain she has caused:
Lamb vows to show her what’s left of the imagined America he’s been describing. He plays with the child not because he is a predator, but because he is himself a child; his fantasies of life as a cowboy, of entitlement and adventure, have eclipsed what should be responsible adulthood, only to hurt all those he claims to love. It was that kind of hurt — and the despair of realizing I’ve caused as much as I’ve received — that most influenced the shape of my book
While this book could have used at least one more edit, it does succeed in making a character come to life, in painting a portrait of a contemporary America that has passed its sell-by date when it comes to fulfilling idyllic dreams, and in sustaining a very engaging level of tension. It is a good book that could have been better, but is not half bad, and a very impressive first novel.
PS - and for fans of The League of Gentlemen, my inner voice kept hearing Papa Lazarou throughout, asking “is that you, Dave?”
A few sites are worth a look. There is an interview at Other Press
and another at Harper