A forbidden road trip: A review of Lamb

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Lamb
Bonnie Nadzam
275 pages, softcover: $15.95.
Other Press, 2011.

After his marriage dissolves over an affair with a coworker and his father dies, David Lamb drives to a parking lot near his Chicago home to think. "Nothing before him but the filthy street and bright signs announcing the limits of his world: Transmission Masters and Drive Time Financing and Drive-Thru Liquors. ... If there was something beneath, something behind, it was hidden from him." Then, a freckled, inappropriately dressed 11-year-old girl named Tommie walks up to him and says, "I'm supposed to ask you for a cigarette."

Lamb obliges Tommie and asks, "Now what do I get in exchange?" And so begins Colorado writer Bonnie Nadzam's crisp, startling and psychologically intense debut novel Lamb, which just won the prestigious Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Lamb sees Tommie as someone fresh, vivid and full of potential, a relief from his burnt-out and busted-up life. Tommie laps up the attention, and agrees to accompany the older man to his cabin in the Rocky Mountains.

The parallels between Lamb and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita are evident. Both sets of characters have a similar age difference and respond to their troubles by hitting the road, moving from one hotel to another to avoid legal trouble. But Tommie is more innocent than Lolita, and although Nadzam includes several uncomfortable scenes in which boundaries are almost crossed, Lamb's intentions toward the girl are not sexual.

Instead, Lamb wants to rescue Tommie from her dispiriting urban apartment life of half neglect, with its outgrown shoes and dinners of Cap'n Crunch cereal,  and to re-create his ideal childhood -- spiriting her away to the Rocky Mountains, stuffing her with nutritious food, even dressing her in an old-fashioned nightgown. He teaches her to build a campfire and takes her hiking through landscapes that Nadzam describes with characteristic precision: "The passing day was marked by ravens calling, by constant twittering of song sparrows in the trees and on the fence posts. Acres of dry grass banded by red and gold ribbons of fireweed and yellow gumweed."

Throughout the novel, Nadzam keeps the reader off-balance, veering between sympathy and repulsion for Lamb and his actions. Lamb puts an original spin on the traditional myth of the West through modern-day characters who long to be "saved" and renewed by the Rocky Mountain landscape.

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