A small town on the Colorado Plains, with a sign off the interstate directing passersby to the “ghost town,” frames Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions, a complicated allegory of the conflict between being true to your roots while yearning for a better life. Nancy Pearl of National Public Radio (NPR) compared Nadzam’s story to books by Kent Haruf, but its mysterious message, ambiguous hero, and haunting setting reminded me of the Man Booker 2016 longlisted book, The Many by Wyl Menmuir .
Nearly deserted but for the one bar across from the one restaurant, a dive serving strange combinations of sandwiches and hearty stews, both on the one short street, the town has housed the Walker family for generations. The latest in the long line of talented welders, Jim, declines offers for more money in the city, sometimes trading for food or other items when the locals cannot pay. His reputation brings in enough work to keep him busy; when it does not, he spends his off-time leisurely reading paperback Westerns and eating canned peaches and sardines in his shop, Life is good for Jim; he doesn’t seem to need or want much.
Although he has trained his son, Gordon, to follow in his trade, Gordon’s girlfriend, Lizzie wants to escape. The two are the only young people in town, and Lizzie yearns to go to college, and never come back.
After descriptions of the stark landscape and the despondence lingering in the air, Nadzam begins her story with a stranger and a dog coming into town. The mystery of his background is never solved, but his death triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation.
When Jim suddenly dies of a heart attack, his dying wish imprisons his teenage son to a life of welding and a mysterious bondage to care for someone living in the hills. For years, Jim has carried supplies to a site miles out of town, staying for days, and then returning to his welding. The local gossip created mythology around these trips, delegating Jim as a savior for a long-lost Native, possibly now a ghost, who lives in a hut in the hills. Later, Jim’s wife laughs off the lore by saying she always thought Jim’s out of town excursions were merely his way of escaping for awhile, but Nadzam nurtures the possibility of someone dependent on Jim’s visits, and mysteriously never offers an answer.
Determined to leave, Lizzie convinces Gordon to enroll in college, leaving his mother in the care of the neighboring bartender and eatery owner. After a quick trip to Walmart on the way, Gordon helps Lizzie move into her dorm room, and goes to his own dorm, unpacking his father’s favorite chair and paperbacks, but never attending classes. Within weeks, Jim is ready to return, stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving Lizzie behind.
From here the story becomes even more obscure. Gordon returns only briefly to unload his father’s chair, then drives off into the hills with the familiar supplies his father often brought. When his truck is found deserted on the road, Lizzie returns to help with the search, convinced he is hiding somewhere.
What happens to the town? to Lizzie? to Gordon? Let me know if you read the book, and we can discuss it.
Lions is not for everyone, and it is not as good as the promised Kent Haruf clone, but the story did hold onto me, and still does. While some still can ignore modern technology, refusing to have a computer or participate in social media, how long will it be before they are swept away into history – unless, of course, they choose privacy, secluding themselves from it all. Nadzam offers a few phrases worth remembering, as she deftly underscores Lizzie’s struggle and the determination of those who would remain in the dying town – perhaps more the point than the story line:
“Deserve has nothing to do with what we get.”
“You didn’t always get – you almost never got- the whole story of every man, woman, or child who asked something of you in this world. What you got was the moment they stood before you. You’d have to take your chances, make your best judgment, and do whatever you were going to do. There was a sort of resolve you had to consult that went deeper than the fact of a man’s personal history…”