Bonnie Nadzam: “The Losing End”

08/08/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, August 2011.

This story features a good use of physical details, for Nadzam compresses a horde of information about her character, Lamb, into short and powerful lists that literaturely fence him in. (This is also a useful technique for adapting an novel into short-story form; better to be overwhelmed than under-.) It’s the day of his father’s funeral, and the story opens as he watches — alone — “as they lowered a sealed casket into a deep, empty rectangle framed by artificial turf.” That world-wearying emptiness is re-enforced by his next observation: “It seemed to him there was neither father nor burial involved.” So is that troublesome artificiality: parked “in the lot between a liquor barn and a dollar store” he longs for a way out, but sees only “the limits of his world: Transmission Masters and Drive Time Financing and Drive-Thru Liquors and Courtesy Loans and Office Depot and a Freeway Inn and a Luxury Inn and a Holiday Inn.” The repetition, the meaningless franchises, the known world: “All of that, and what was there now to hold him up?”

This is all valuable set-up for what the coming action, in which he encounters a hideous, hooky-playing seventh grader, a kindred soul, he realizes, who is trying both to fit in and stand out like himself, what with her “lopsided purple tube top and baggy shorts and brass-colored sandals studded with rhinestones. She carried a huge pink patent-leather purse and was possibly the worse thing he’d seen all day.” That’s a great description — and also the first real burst of color into the scene — and so he gives her the cigarette that her two “friends” have dared her to cadge . . . and then decides to take it a step further, looking to teach both the girl, and her manipulative, fair-weather friends, a lesson.

In a surprising, engaging twist, Lamb kidnaps the girl, ostensibly just to scare the other two girls away from strangers in the future, but then with the realization that he’s actually done it: “It was true, what he’d said. He could be taking her off to kill her. He could do anything he wanted.” But he’s not that kind of man, resolves the story, as he drives her back to her apartment: “It wasn’t kidnapping when the kid ended up safely delivered home in better shape than she’d left in the morning. It was like he’d found a loose bolt out there in the world, and had carefully turned it back into place. It was fine.” What good would killing her do, after all? At the funeral, he’d already witnessed his father’s non-escape; at the parking lot, he’d seen his own prison; and now, at the girl’s home “near the freeway behind a gas station off six lines of traffic,” he’s seen the beyond-pitiable truth of her own trapped circumstances. “He, too, was on the losing end of all this,” he notes, affixing the title to the theme; after all, his wife’s left him and, now that she’s changed her number, he’s aware that she’s not coming back.

The story ends with Lamb deliberately choosing to be alone, telling the young nineteen-year-old he’s been sleeping with that his wife is still around, and that he can’t get away this weekend. He is a lost man, soon drowning in alcohol; his brightest hope is that the girl he’d briefly kidnapped will turn out for the better. This particularly resolution could stand a bit more work, but at the same time, it’s easy to see how Nadzam, a talented writer, could write a novel about this man (whose sacrificial name is no accidental choice). Fine work; here’s hoping the novel (Lamb) holds up.

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