Bonnie Nadzam’s newly-released second novel, Lions (Grove Atlantic/Black Cat, $16), is a ghost story–a ghost story about the spirit of a dying Colorado town called Lions, so named “to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it had been first imagined, then sought and spuriously claimed.”
It is also a story about the ghosts that haunt the town’s few remaining inhabitants: the ghosts of their ancestors, the ghosts of their hopes and ambitions, the ghosts of an uncertain future.
Lions is a bleak place, “comprised of no more than searing light and eddying dust. Nothing but wind and white sun.” Its people eke out meager lives from barren land, and are slowly but surely abandoning their homes to escape–or perhaps to chase–the ghosts that haunt them.
One person not intending to leave is John Walker, the owner of a welding shop. His family has lived in Lions for generations, and his skillful craftsmanship and stoic virtue are legendary in the county. When, in the opening chapters of Lions, a stranger and his dog wander into town, Walker unquestioningly gives him food, clothing, and money.
But in Lions, good deeds count for little. Tragedy falls upon the unnamed stranger, as well as on the Walker family. Over the course of the summer, Walker’s son, Gordon, and his son’s girlfriend, Leigh, must wrestle with these tragedies, and with life in a place that seems never able to escape its past, never able to move forward toward something better, but instead is “confined to a never-ending present.”
To describe the plot of Lions makes it sound trite, even juvenile, what with ghosts, and curses, and a motley cast of small-town characters. But Lions isn’t a straightforward narrative about rural America. It’s an atmospheric exploration of hope, nostalgia, and a desperate yearning for the unattainable. It is simultaneously comforting in its familiarity, heartbreaking in its inevitability, and haunting in its evocations.
Nadzam’s painterly prose reveals a land that is starkly beautiful, infused with light and color, as magical as it is disturbing. Lions is a place that, if you’re at all familiar with rural America, you’ve likely encountered: a bar, a diner, a closed school, an abandoned factory, a handful of decaying houses and boarded-up storefronts lining a dirt road, a bigger, better town up the highway promising happiness in the form of a movie theater, restaurants, and shopping.
As the people of Lions scrape their way through life in “a dream from which they refused to awaken,” we confront the desires and fears that timelessly lurk beneath the hot and dusty land. It’s tempting to try and excavate these threads, to attempt to parse the themes and symbols and referents. But to do so would be as unwise as exploring the dark corners of a crumbling sugar beet factory on a moonless night: we might disturb something that we’re not quite ready to confront.
As Americans abandon the rural for the urban, as we–willingly or not–become unmoored from family and home, as we all too often eschew selfless virtue and succumb to the siren call of ghostly aspirations, Lions is a reminder that stories, even ones infused with loss and despair, can ground and guide us. As I open its pages again–this time reading it aloud, which it is wonderfully suited to–I’m reminded that good books often share their truths obliquely, through the intangible and the ephemeral, through the ghosts that are in everything.
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two and a half cats.