Lions by Bonnie Nadzam
Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions feels composed from the Whistle-Stop Cafe’s Recipe Book for Folksy Novelists: one part dead-end town, just for passing through; equal parts young lovers, one hell-bent on leaving, the other rooting to stay; a dusting of tumbleweeds across the highway and a dash of rhubarb pie, all narrated in a wise, second-person kindness as if regaled from a porchfront rocker. Nadzam is a perfectly capable writer trapped in her own dead-end story, and it’s a story I reckon you’ve heard before.
Still, a familiar palette isn’t much of a criticism; faulting Lions for its small world would be like faulting a guitarist for not doing more than strumming a twelve bar blues and singing about home. Lions is a rare kind of genre fiction: one in the canon of American realism, lost in a time before our cliches wore out.
A mysterious stranger wanders through town one evening and is later found dead. His passing doesn’t necessarily put a chain of events into action, but instead is the first ‘event’ of any sort that the empty town of Lions has had in recent memory. His strange appearance is quickly canonized into the town’s local lore, alongside The Echo Station, where legend has it the “dust and light would take the form of either a past or future self” if you closely follow the superstition’s steps, and Lucy Graves, the ghostly “old homesteader with hair the color of milk” after which May Ransom named her diner. This transient reminds the ten or so characters that make up the novel (and seemingly the town’s entire population) that Lions is not a good place in which to end up with any finality.
The tired drama of teens wanting to leave Nowheresville, USA becomes the central plot of Lions (a limiting choice for Nadzam, particularly so after establishing that her town’s livelihood is built on passing around local legends). Leigh and Gordon had romantic plans to go to school together in the fall and finally leave Lions, a town “not only bare, but obviously cursed,” “comprised of no more than searing light and eddying dust.” But the untimely death of Gordon’s father John disrupts their departure. John confides something to Gordon while on his deathbed, a mystery that Nadzam alludes to throughout the novel as Gordon disappears from Lions for days at a time. He misses John’s funeral and Leigh’s birthday, and a rift begins to form between him and his former soulmate. With emotional pressures from his family and the uncertain fate of his father’s Welding Shop, Gordon’s mind — and body — are distracted and elsewhere.
“There was no future in Lions,” the narrator explains. “No matter how many stories you heard about years gone by, no matter how may plans you had stocked up for the future, you were confined to a never-ending present.” Leigh and Gordon’s conflict neatly fits into these two opposing forces: while Leigh dreams of the future, Gordon finds comfort in his dusty daily routine. Developing this interest in tenses, Nadzam occasionally breaks free from this traditional story with a few jumps in her timeline, to Leigh as a grown woman. These moments are fleeting, but they are highlights and exemplify the nostalgia that runs through the novel. Yet, in conjunction with the plodding action of the rest of the book, these shimmering shifts are ultimately detrimental: they inadvertently show readers a novel that could have been and permit them to wonder if the drama in Lions would have been more effective in hindsight.