• Bonnie Nadzam
  • Other Press
  • 288 pp.

In this stunning and evocative novel, a chance encounter finds two characters reaching out in desperation to change who they are amid the vastness of the Midwest.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

What happens when a damaged, self-involved man loves a girl unconditionally? David Lamb stumbles upon this question when he encounters Tommie in front of the CVS drug store. She’s a freckled piglet of a girl, dressed in a makeshift tube top.  Set up by friends to bum a cigarette, Tommie gets into his car. With her consent, Lamb decides to teach these so-called friends a lesson about the dangers of trust. The subsequent relationship that unfolds between Lamb and Tommie is the subject of Bonnie Nadzam’s remarkable debut novel.

David Lamb is a mess. His dissolute father is dead, his marriage is over, and his job is in jeopardy. Tommie is on the verge of adolescence. “Eleven,” Lamb tells her, “is the most perfect age to be a girl. And you’ll know it the minute you turn twelve.” At their different turning points, they see in each other the chance to reach beyond their lives and become different people.

The narrative arc is a road trip through which Lamb and Tommie develop a deeply tender and disquieting friendship. Their bond depends largely on Lamb’s idealized notion of the great American outdoors. The ways in which he uses this narrative to adore and nourish Tommie forces the reader to examine disturbing questions. “None of this was planned,” Nadzam writes. “This is the kind of unforeseeable map that arrives one bright little city at a time. It’s about letting go of the clench in your forehead and letting your heart steer. And it isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

Lamb and Tommie are beautifully realized characters, and Nadzam’s evocative writing places you firmly in the raw beauty and stark emptiness of the American Midwest. What does it mean to enter a bigger country? Is it a beautiful dream come true or a disturbing delusion? Nadzam suggests it might be both, and her nuanced exploration of what it means to forge true intimacy makes this novel hauntingly brilliant.

For Tommie it feels like they are in a movie. But Lamb insists it is not pretend — even though he uses deceit to glue together their intimacy. Their relationship is explored with spare dialog and beautiful visual imagery. I can see this book being adapted to the screen. But the heart of the story lies in discovering the kind of man this little girl can make of David Lamb, and the kind of girl Lamb can make of Tommie. Who are they, as they step into a different America? Their yearnings and their failures to embody new selves are heartrending.

Readers may be tempted to compare this novel to Lolita, but that would be missing the point. These two are no Humbert and Lolita. They are flawed and unrealized — trapped by what the world has made of them so far, yearning to experience something deeper.

At one point they cross the road toward a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and feel they are “walking towards the image of a man and a girl in the windows before them, as if finally, after all this travel, they were approaching themselves. There they were — hovering somewhere inside the restaurant, walking on air, looking out at their street bodies, beckoning like ghosts.”

The irony here is that the people they become to each other are destined to turn into ghosts. Lamb’s fierce and generous love for Tommie is also cruel in many ways. When she’s too tired to protest, he exploits her with brainwashing and manipulation. You sense he’s unaware of the damage he’s doing. He indulges and spoils her, but because he is needy he also indulges himself.

Tommie, for her part, is inarticulate, young and narrow. She often answers with a shrug. But Lamb decides that “whenever she shrugged it would mean she was saying how much she liked him.”

Would it be better had they never embarked on this journey? The answer isn’t easy.  “Lamb was just a man in the world,” writes Nadzam. “He’d fed her well and told her stories and loved her up all the way through the dim lit outskirts of Rockford, Iowa City, Omaha, across the national grasslands, stiff and pale in the increasing cold; over the continental divide as the sky shed itself in falling snow, and up to where there were no trees, no birds, no life but the slow force of rock rising up from a thin and frozen crust of ground. Say this was all in hopes of glimpsing something beautiful. And is there anything wrong with that?”

Lamb flings open all the doors and windows. It lets a lot of fresh air into our language.  Reading this book is like cleansing the palate. The American dream played out in David Lamb’s head and conveyed to Tommie is just as flawed as it is beautiful, both intimate and exploitive, in a way that inevitably accompanies any complex and unexpected relationship.  Bonnie Nadzam has written a marvelous book. It will haunt you long after you finish it.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories, published under Amanda Holmes, have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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