Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb

Publisher: Other Press

2011, 275 pages, paperback, $16

good prose creates physical reactions: we laugh; we cry; we, as Emily Dickinson put it, feel the tops of our heads lopped off. Bad blurbs, for me at least, likewise create physical reactions, though of a different kind: when I read prose described as evocative, breathtaking, or—worst of all—important, bullshit sirens howl in my mind.

So when I read the praise adorning the back-cover of Bonnie Nadzam’s debut novel, Lamb, I was skeptical. While reading T.C. Boyle’s remark that Lamb is “powerful and original,” I could think of nothing beyond the impotence and triteness of the blurb. But, overcoming my inner cynic, I did something that made me forget about blurbs altogether: I opened the book.

Lamb, like all good literature, defies summary. But here’s my shot at it: David Lamb, our protagonist, has just lost his father; the affair he’s having with his co-worker is doing nothing positive for either his marriage or his job; and, after his father’s funeral, frustrated, feeling strange, Lamb and an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie strike up a strange—some would say ‘perverted’ or ‘manipulative’—friendship. This friendship leads the two across the country, and, to say the least, into morally muddled situations—a.k.a., the perfect context for good fiction.

The power of Nadzam’s writing rests chiefly in her ability to write (i) tense, gut-wrenching dialogue and (ii) beautiful, effective descriptions of nature. While the former is more likely to sell books, the latter deserves the higher praise. I am, I confess, a passionate hater of nature writing, even that which is considered top-of-the-line.

“A true description of nature,” Chekhov wrote in a letter to his brother, “should be very brief and have a character of relevance.”

Brevity is key. Around the second paragraph of nature description, I see neither forest nor trees: I only know that I’m lost in the greenery. Nadzam never sinks to writing exhaustively about nature and, consequently, the reader never feels exhausted: “Clouds came up above the canopies of trees,” she writes, “and the wind swept them across a sky so simultaneously bright and dark it stopped David Lamb’s heart and he thought, this is it.”

Those last two clauses evince Nadzam’s knowledge of Chekhov’s second point: good fictional nature writing is necessarily anthropocentric. We don’t come to literature to see the connection between the lily and the daffodil; we come to see the connection between the lily, the daffodil, and the human. Lesser writers rely on textbook-style catalogues of species; Nadzam never does.

Now, to return to that first quality of Nadzam’s prose: dialogue. Nadzam’s tense and frequent dialogue not only makes the story move at breakneck pace, it also reveals one of the central conflicts in the story, that of battling narratives. Bad dialogue often results when the author forgets that each character should come to a conversation with different expectations, motives, and worldviews. Nadzam continually avoids this mistake.

Lamb, the protagonist, repeatedly remarks on his eleven-year-old companion’s freckles, on their quantity and their beauty. Does the girl accept this with a since-you-put-it-that-way-I-understand line? No. “They’re fugly,” she says. We see not only the gaps between the characters’ aesthetics and worldviews, but also the linguistic chasm: “I don’t know what that means,” Lamb says, “but I don’t like the sound of it.”

All of this is not to say the book is without fault. In addition to being a fine literary novel, Lamb is also a thriller, one that can be read without the reader looking around to see who’s watching. This is, at times, exhilarating, but there are other times when I felt a bit manipulated. This occurs primarily when the point of view shifts to heighten suspense. I can hear an avid fan, or the author, defending the shifts and the manipulation. It’s central to the meaning, they’d say. It speaks to the way that stories manipulate us, the way we change our stories to change our readers. Don’t you see? I do see. Still, the shifts come too seldom and, thus, feel newly shocking each time, and the manipulation motif comes through quite clearly without the shifts. Also, the need to thrill the reader causes the author to make her characters, at times, do inexplicable things.

Upon finishing the book, I reflected again on blurbs. If I were T. C. Boyle, I thought, and I’d maybe had Bonnie in a class or two, we’d shared coffee a couple of times, and she’d just had me read her book, obviously fishing for a blurb, what would I say? I’d feel the tug of convention, the impulse to please, to let her know, You’ve done well. But T. C. Boyle, I hope, would forgo the easy-to-use, hard-to-define words—not because the book isn’t evocative, powerful, original, but because the words have become meaningless, and Lamb has meaning in abundance. I think I’d settle on something simple, something physical, maybe something like, “A good debut from a good writer. Lamb is the kind of book that doesn’t let you sleep until you’ve finished it.”

—Ross Feeler