'Lions' is an evocative novel of place, set on the brooding frontier

Pretty Leigh Ransom and handsome Gordon Walker are in love and planning to head soon to college. But can anyone really leave a town like Lions?

Lions Bonnie Nadzam Grove/Atlantic 288 pages

Picture this: “The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are washed up. And there was so much motion in it: the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” And now this: “A hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass. The wind scours it constantly, scrubbing the sage and sweeping out all the deserted buildings and weathered homes.... Flat as hell’s basement and empty as the boundless sky above it.”

The first image is from Willa Cather’s "My Ántonia," published in 1918, the second from Bonnie Nadzam’s new novel, Lions. Both stories are rooted in similar earth – and Nadzam declares herself “particularly indebted” to Cather – yet the landscapes portrayed could not be more different. Whereas Cather’s wind-caressed Nebraska prairie moves "as if the shaggy grass were a loose sort of hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping, ” Nadzam’s present-day Colorado plain is a desiccated wasteland.

The place name itself was surely “meant to stand in for disappointment,” no lions having existed there. “I can’t remember ever seeing this town anything other than empty, ” an old-timer tells his drinking companions. ” ‘The past was great, they said. The future will be great, they said.... None of it was true.’ They all grew quiet. Everything was heavy. Their beer glasses. The boots at the ends of their feet.”

Even with the “mute television hanging over the bar” and the nearby interstate roaring past, the residents of Lions might be mistaken for peasants in an ancient fairy tale: immobilized, entranced. “Everyone old, everyone poor, everyone white,” one character observes. Except for pretty Leigh Ransom and handsome Gordon Walker, in love and leaving soon for college. But can they leave? When Walker men have for generations been bound to this land – and pledged to serve one of its ghosts? For Lions is a ghost-ridden place set down on ancient, blood-soaked terrain. Nadzam describes it, however, with such cinematic clarity that each element, whether real or spectral, seems tangible: the brooding stranger at the door, the diner sandwich on the grill.

The mystery begins, of course, with the stranger. “It was just barely twilight. The man stooped and scratched the dog behind the ears and spoke to her, looking out over what he could see of the town ... the small crush of lights in the distance from the diner and the bar where anyone still surviving had gathered to ride out the coming night.”

At the Walker house he is welcomed as though expected, fed, freshly clothed, and given provisions for the road. He visits the bar, spends the night in jail, and the next day finds his dog dead on the highway. “A huge dry storm rotated overhead that evening,” Nadzam writes with biblical gusto, “howling like loose trains and beating the naked plain back to life.” Before long, a human corpse turns up in the town’s water tower, and Gordon Walker has headed northward on a cryptic mission, "a band of darkness slowly closing over him like a lid.”

As the atmosphere thickens with a few portents too many, Nadzam wisely shifts our attention to restless Leigh Ransom, a lively spark in the gloom and the novel’s most substantial character. Helping out in her mother’s diner and impatient to leave, she studies the occasional fresh customer, "bitter that others had what looked to her like a better life. Their easy smiles, their confidence.”

Then along comes Alan Ranger, a slick Denver businessman, whose arrival perks up both Leigh and the somnolent narrative. “He drove a forest green pickup, his golden arm hanging out the window. He smiled, and she leaned in at the rolled-down window. There was a six-pack of cold brown bottles in the passenger seat.” The diversion is brief – a few beers, a few kisses, the zing of maybe – yet in it Nadzam, at her plain best, conveys both the reckless certainty of youth and its accompanying lurch of dread. (A feeling palpable throughout Nadzam’s first novel, "Lamb," whose theme notoriously recalled Nabokov’s "Lolita.")

Leigh will leave. But escaping your place, she eventually learns, is easier than escaping the past; there is simply too much of the latter on this brooding frontier. Even Nadzam, the creator, has nowhere to go at the novel’s conclusion but back to the land where a centuries-old legend still holds sway over puny mortal desires.

“She’ll drive north, alone,” Nadzam writes of Leigh’s inevitable return, years later, “higher and higher, as she searches for a tall narrow hut. She’ll look for the white circle of a man’s face flashing like a light among the trees. She’ll look for a blue feather of chimney smoke.” In this evocative yet frustrating novel, the reader too is left searching for the meaning of it all.

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