Dave Lamb is a self-obsessed 54 year old man who’s business partner has told him to take some time off work to cool an affair he has had with a subordinate. He is upset and disoriented, being unable to return to Cathy, his wife, but remembering his comfortable life with her with nostalgic longing.
Bonnie Nadzam’s book, Lamb opens with Dave sitting inside his truck after his father’s funeral, smoking a cigarette, when an 11 year old girl breaks away from a couple of friends and walks towards him, “a lop-sided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-coloured sandals studded with rhinestones . . . she was possibly the worst thing he had seen all day”.
The girl tells Dave that she has been dared by her friends to ask him for a cigarette. After a few minutes of banter, the truck leaves the car-park, with Dave driving and Tommie sitting next to him. This begins one of the most disturbing books I have read in a long time but also one I could hardly put down once I had started it.
Dave seems to be on a mission to rescue the girl from what he perceives as a sort of trailer-trash life. He wants to restore the innocence she lost while living in neglectful chaos with her harassed mother and her drifter boy-friend. He sees in Tommie an opportunity to do some good in the world, but his motives are terribly mixed and he finds himself involved in ever-deeper levels of deceit as they drive off on a lengthy road-trip to the Rockies.
Writers talk about the “voice” they are creating, and in Dave and Tommie we have powerful descriptions of two very well-drawn characters – Dave the utterly self-deceived loser who really believes he is saving Bonnie’s life by abducting her, and Bonnie, the naive, pre-adolescent, wise and innocent at the same time as she accepts Dave’s assurance that they can turn round and go home any time she wishes. I found myself squirming with horror as the “relationship” develops – Dave’s words of reassurance so plausible yet shot through with delusions of proxy-parenting which he should never be attempting.
It is Dave’s voice which shocks the most. While professing care for Bonnie as he promises her that this is “just a vacation”, he subtly builds a picture of an idyllic future so little in tune with the girl’s best interests –
And I’ll fry you eggs in the morning, and butter you a thick piece of cold bread, and I’ll slice the bacon myself, and bring you hot chocolate, and you’ll sit on the wood rail fence in your night-gown, and I’ll put my jacket over your shoulders, and we’ll balance our plates on our kneed and watch the sun come up while we eat. And when I have to leave the house to go to work you’ll wait for me, won’t you? You’ll sit on the fence and watch the dirt road till you see me coming back to you.
Bonnie Hadzam has degrees in Environmental Studies and English Literature and she writes beautifully about the landscape of the Rockies and the semi-derelict towns that the couple pass through. Indeed, for a first novel this is remarkably assured writing, building up as much tension as any thriller while somehow making a statements about the contrast between innocence and corruption and the impossible longing to do better with our lives.
For Dave is a hopeless case. In abducting Bonnie, he genuinely believes that he is on some sort of welfare mission –
And there was nothing wrong with all that, was there? With a guy like him buying a kid like her a nice lunch, spoiling her a little? It was good for her. It was just a little tonic for his poisonous heart. Right? Why shouldn’t he have that? It was good for them both. And so it was good for everybody – because that’s how goodness works. It spills like water, bleeds into everyone, into everything, into trees, rivers, cracks in sidewalks. And Christ, it gave him such a nice feeling to put that nice new coat on her, to button it up right beneath her freckled chin.
He he can only indulge himself by dressing up his fantasies in a cloak of charity. As the book develops we see Dave’s darker motives emerge but strangely, they are not so much paedophilic as narcissistic. Dave is not obsessed with under-age girls, but rather with anyone who will listen to him and who will allow him to pander to his deluded self-image – a child can do this as well as anybody.
The writer never lets the reader settle down with this story. It has twists and turns in abundance and nothing is exactly as it seems. We never quite know who is telling the story – the narrator seems to shift from Dave himself to a third-party observer, sometimes dispassionate and at other times offering a wry commentary on the unfolding events.
This book has had a big impact in America where reviewers rightly laud Bonnie Nadzam for her narrative gifts. She is also a master of dialogue, creating the sort of conversations you’d overhear in a diner between these two people at opposite ends of their life experience. Readers found the book profoundly disturbing while being more or less agreed that it is totally memorable and something not to be missed. Lamb is not a horror novel; it is far more than that, for the terror is subtly created in the reader’s mind rather than being explicit on the page. I’ve a feeling we will hear much about Lamb in coming months.