David Lamb is a middle aged man who is flailing through a difficult period in his life: his marriage has disintegrated, his career is on thin ice following an affair with a coworker, and his father has just passed away. One day he crosses paths with an eleven year old girl named Tommie, whose so-called friends made her approach David for a cigarette. To teach her friends a lesson, he pretends to abduct the terrified Tommie, throwing her in his truck and driving off. He immediately takes her home, but that encounter kicks off David’s increasingly unsettling obsession with Tommie; he has a desire to show her the world.
Tommie initially resists David, but he slowly manages to win her over. She’s an awkward girl, a loner who is bullied and whose freckled appearance is cruelly mocked (at one point, a boy at school remarks, “Did someone put a colander over your head and spray diarrhea on you?”). It is out of this loneliness that her friendship with David grows, and eventually David proposes that the two of them take a road trip out west to his cabin in Colorado. To her pre-adolescent mind, Tommie believes that she and David are equals, and that she has the power to make all the decisions about the proposed trip; she agrees, and the two embark on their journey west with new identities: he is now Gary, and she is Em.
I read this book with increasing alarm. By all outward appearances David and Tommie seem to have a cordial and respectful relationship. But of course, David is in his forties and Tommie is still eleven–the mind games he plays and the reverse psychology he uses on her are sickening. Tommie may feel like she is David’s equal, but she’s just a little girl. David, too, goes back and forth regarding all of the boundaries he keeps crossing:
[T]here 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 have him such a feeling to put that nice new coat on her, to button it up right beneath her freckled chin.
As a reader, I spent the first half of the book with a sick feeling in my stomach: Is David a sexual predator? Is he grooming Tommie? What kind of lines is he going to cross? What’s he getting out of his friendship with Tommie? What is Tommie getting out of their friendship? Nadzam leaves readers with more questions than answers, even as David’s nature become more apparent.
One of the most striking things about this book was how the plot paralleled the rawness and cruelty of nature. The author, Bonnie Nadzam, has a background in environmental studies, and her descriptions of the landscape as David and Tommie travel through the Midwest and into the Colorado wilderness are stark and poetic; her comments about Mother Nature and almost always suffused with subtle insights about human nature:
He drove her in his Ford past the Fox River and into the prairie reserves and green and muddy ponds beyond. It was a day suddenly hot and clear. The weather like summer again–a lie of lies when the first of autumn’s rainy mornings had already begun. The day itself drowsy in the honeyed light, as if space itself were drained of the energy it took to sustain such a falsehood.
This book is not an easy read; there’s nothing explicit, but it’s extremely disturbing nonetheless (even flipping back through the book to write this review left me feeling unsettled). That said, Nadzam executed it beautifully. There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with writing about such a delicate subject, but in leaving so much open to discussion, Nadzam illustrates that nothing is ever simply black and white.
Lamb was released by Other Press on September 13, 2011.