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.
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.
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.
Maureen, who was in the library, hides in a cabinet, where she emerges traumatized and unreachable to her husband.
“On that day, Maureen had escaped execution by opening a cabinet door and entering a maze – a many-corridored prison whose four outer walls were fear, anger, guilt, and grief. And because I was powerless to retrieve her – because I, too, entered the labyrinth and became lost – my only option was to find its center, confront the two-headed monster who waited for me there, and murder it.”
The novel is at its strongest when Lamb hews most closely to the Columbine tragedy. The ferocity and journalistic detail of his writing in these sections are among the most powerful of his career.
After the shooting, the couple move back to Connecticut, where Maureen struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and ends up addicted to Xanax. Driving home from her job at a retirement home, she kills a teenager and ends up a resident in the very prison Caelum’s ancestor founded. Only these days, it’s a rather different place.
This is compelling stuff, but the story of a couple trying to heal from devastation ends up swamped in a morass of reminiscences and family history.
At pivotal moments, we suddenly veer into discussions of Caelum’s emotionally distant mother and alcoholic, absent dad; a bizarre episode with a creepy school janitor; and a long description about a dinner his great-grandmother had with Mark Twain and inventor Nikola Tesla. (I love them both but still can’t figure out how they fit into the book.)
There’s also a 19th-century mystery with a strangely uninvolving payoff.
And in case the novel weren’t topical enough, a couple who lost their house in hurricane Katrina move in with Caelum. One of them is a women’s studies major, who writes her dissertation on Caelum’s ancestor, a Civil War nurse who lobbied to create the reform-minded prison completed by her daughter.
We get to read it, interspersed between ongoing modern tragedies, and somehow, in the shuffle, Maureen gets shoved to the back of the novel.
“The Hour I First Believed” suffers from tragedy overload. As if the Columbine shootings weren’t horror enough, there is manslaughter, dead babies, rampaging Iraqi war veterans, mental illness, lawsuits, alcoholism, the Civil War, sexual abuse, abortion, and kidnapping. (I’m fairly certain I’m leaving a few things out.)
Pretty much everything happens to Caelum and Maureen except getting tied to the railroad tracks. When I finished reading, I felt exhausted and as if someone had beaten me with a first edition of the book.
The emotional bruising isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that if Lamb had only held off on the disaster dogpile he could really have had something profound.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.