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The Hour I First Believed

Wally Lamb’s latest novel imagines a couple engulfed in the emotional aftershocks of the Columbine school shootings.

By Yvonne Zipp / December 20, 2008

You know how Michelangelo liked to stare at a slab of marble and wait for the work of art to emerge? A similar experience awaits readers of Wally Lamb’s new novel, The Hour I First Believed. The metaphor seems apt, because the 750-page behemoth weighs about as much as a hunk of granite.

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Unfortunately, in this case, it’s up to the reader to do the excavating.

School shootings have inspired novels as diverse as Jodi Picoult’s ripped-from-the-headlines bestseller “Nineteen Minutes” and Richard Russo’s National Book Award winner “Empire Falls.” Lamb, whose first two novels, “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True” were both given the Oprah seal of approval, has previously shown an affinity for both teenage voices and the emotional aftereffects of tragedy.

So it’s not surprising that he would gravitate to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Lamb hasn’t lost his ability for dark humor or for making readers care intensely about his characters, no matter how flawed. He avoids sentimentality, cheap psychological diagnosis, and healing through the power of platitudes.

Where he seems to have tripped up is the unwieldy structure of his story, which is buried under so many dissertations, subplots, tangents (and even Mark Twain sightings) that it requires the patience of, well, a Job.
Which is kind of funny, since that’s what Lamb might as well have named his main character.

Caelum Quirk lives in Connecticut. He grew up on a farm next to a women’s prison started by his great-grandmother.

He’s now a high school English and creative writing teacher married to a nurse. But when his wife, Maureen, has an affair, Caelum takes a wrench to her lover’s car, thereby costing him his job.

At Maureen’s urging, the tenuously reconciled couple head to Littleton, so she can be near the emotionally distant father who sexually abused her when she was 12. (And that’s where my Nuh-uh radar went off for the first time.)

In April of 1999, the great-aunt who raised Caelum ends up in the hospital, and he returns to Connecticut. Aunt Lolly dies, and he’s grappling with grief and the funeral arrangements when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold go on a rampage, killing 13 people before committing suicide.


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