I love getting books for the holidays. While I am a strong believer in public domain, information sharing, and libraries, sometimes it feels so good to be able to ear-mark a page guilt-free. So of course I was very happy to receive this book, Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam, (and other books of course) for Christmas.
But that was the only guilt-free part of this book.
Written in a Lolita line of a story, with a mix of Joyce-like stream of consciousness, this is a very soft book with a very hard message. Gary, a successful man in his fifties impulsively befriends an eleven year old girl named Tommie, and they go up into the mountains to his cabin for a week of camping and learning. It’s a hard book to read because like Lolita, there is a ton of sexual tension and possible molestation between the two of them, not to mention that while Tommie came willingly, one could argue that because of her age she was really more coerced into the trip.
We learn through the course of the novel that Gary was the obvious favorite in his family growing up, and that he had a brother that he had often ignored, until one day his brother disappeared entirely. Because of Gary’s penchant for lying all the time, we never really know whether or not this story is true, but because of the way he swings wildly from being an older, mature caregiver to being an immature and needy child that Tommie must take care of, we can assume that it must be at least partially true, which explains his need for Tommie to rely on him, and for him to be able to successfully take care of Tommie even in the mountains. Although there isn’t any explicit sexual scenes, Gary does kiss Tommie on the mouth on occasion, sleeps in her bed, and baths her.
But I think to stop our understanding of the book there would be a terrible dishonor to ourselves and the novel. Lamb is about the nature of human desire and the human condition. As I read in Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, the old love the young because there is an untouched element to it, a feeling of innocence that, once lost, can never be reclaimed. And as Gary revealed, he was the beloved child, the chosen one, and Tommie was precisely the opposite. Their first interaction hinges on her being bullied by her so-called friends, and Gary loves that she has nearly no personality or enthusiasm whatsoever. Gary is trying so desperately to feel something, anything, and to find a girl who has no spine both infuriates and fascinates him, because the ability to do anything he wants has bored him. He wants to recollect that kind of wonder and excitement that a child experiences, like when he shows Tommie the cabin for the first time. That kind of feeling, like your first kiss or your first dive into an ice-cold lake, can never be experienced again with the same fervor and innocence of the first time.
That’s why there are such common fetishes with nuns, teenagers, school girls in knee high socks, and so on and so forth. That’s why successful men in their sixties date 20 year olds, and why women smear anti-aging serum onto their faces at a hundred bucks a pop. We are all looking for that one experience, that one moment, “that keeps the wound alive”, and that reminds us that we are real.
So while we can take this book to be about the dirty relationship between an old man and a young girl and condone them for it, I think this book is rather a tragedy in the way Lolita is; which is people who are unable to cope with the human condition, unable to cope with their own mortality, inhibition, or inexperience. It’s the tragedy that sparks mid-life crises, and causes people to sigh and talk about the good old days, and while we may not kidnap eleven year old girls, I think there’s a part in all of us who can sympathize with Gary, and long for the days when eleven seemed like such a long time to be alive.