Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 16, 2008
THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED
By Wally Lamb
Harper. 740 pp. $29.95
A great story is buried in Wally Lamb's avalanche of a novel, The Hour I First Believed, but only the most determined readers will manage to dig it out. The author -- twice blessed by Oprah, for She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True -- can be a captivating storyteller, and he has built this story on one of the most shocking acts of violence in modern history. Sadly, though, his new novel becomes so burdened by diversions, delays, tangents and side plots that the whole rambling enterprise grows maddening, the kind of book you want to throw across the room, if only you could lift it.
The narrator is a middle-aged English teacher named Caelum who's trying to hold together his third marriage. When he discovers that his wife, Maureen, is cheating on him, he attacks her lover with a pipe wrench. This is, from start to finish, a novel about the effects of anger, the torrent of destruction that's easily triggered and difficult to repair.
Hoping to remake their lives after Maureen's adultery and Caelum's prosecution for assault, they move to Colorado and get jobs at Columbine High School. In April of 1999, when Caelum flies back to Connecticut to check on his sickly aunt, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enact their deadly rampage. Caught in the school's library, Maureen hides in a cabinet listening to students being taunted and slaughtered.
Lamb doesn't provide the sort of psychological insight into the perpetrators that we got from Richard Russo's and Lionel Shriver's novels about school shootings, but he knows just how to let the details of a tragedy unfold without decoration or commentary. He's a master at the kind of direct, unadorned narrative that brings these events alive in all their visceral power. The most terrifying section of The Hour I First Believed is essentially a docudrama of the Columbine massacre, describing the actual events, naming the real victims and heroes and providing chilling excerpts from Klebold's and Harris's journals and videotapes. Lamb's depiction of the aftermath is equally wrenching: parents waiting all night in the gym for lists of the dead, the sound of hundreds of cell phones ringing in uncollected backpacks, the sight of such a happy place transformed into a morgue.
In many ways, this horrendous incident is a natural subject for Lamb. He's long been interested in the lingering effects of trauma and the process of emotional recovery, and it's a relief to see that his treatment bears none of the shiny optimism associated with his famous talk-show patron. Although Lamb is too earnest for satire, The Hour I First Believed makes ironic references to Dr. Phil, Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul and the whole recovery industry that's grown up in the last couple of decades. As Caelum attends funerals, memorial services and counseling meetings after the massacre, he hears the full symphony of recovery theology, but he remains bitterly skeptical. "Maybe there was something to this 'power of prayer' stuff, and maybe there wasn't," he says. "But I resented the white-haired woman, shilling for God among the walking wounded." At the main funeral, attended by 70,000 mourners, including Amy Grant, Billy Graham's son and Al Gore, Caelum can't shake his resistance to their healing messages. When the crowd is exhorted to shout, "Columbine is love," Caelum won't do it. And later, when a chillingly efficient therapist begins her PowerPoint presentation on the process of grief, Caelum complains, "Too technical . . . she's talking to sufferers, not psych majors."
The most moving example of the difficulty of recovering from psychological trauma is Caelum's wife. "Mo's one of the victims you've never read about in the Columbine coverage," he tells us. "One of the collaterally damaged." Overwhelmed by flashbacks and panic attacks, she can't return to work or handle the basic tasks of daily life. Caelum tries to do whatever she needs, be whomever she needs, but she remains either zoned out or combative, at constant risk of overdosing on tranquilizers. Caelum struggles to understand what's happening to her as she alternately pushes him away and begs for his affection.
In hopes of providing her with a more peaceful setting, they move back to his family's farmhouse in Connecticut and try to start over. Maureen can't shake her demons, though. Alone and despairing, Caelum throws himself into researching the massacre, hoping to gain some understanding of his wife's condition, but the sheer volume of competing theories only depresses him more. This portrayal of a couple dealing with the asymmetrical effects of trauma is Lamb at his best, wholly sympathetic, deeply moving.
If only the author had stayed with these ample elements, he would have had a powerful novel about two people determined to care for each other despite unfathomable challenges. But as the story moves further along, its focus blurs and the relationship at the center fades away. How much more disaster does a novel require, you may ask, than the deadliest high school shooting in America? The answer, apparently, is much, much more. This giant book becomes an encyclopedia of tragedy and mayhem, including but not limited to the Civil War, the Korean War, the Iraq War, Katrina, vehicular manslaughter, gang rape, kidnapping, dismemberment, alcoholism, suicide (by gun, by train), child abuse, self-mutilation, drug addiction, bankruptcy and infanticide: a menu of misery that could fill Oprah's schedule for a decade.
What's surprising, though, is how this second half of the novel fails even as melodrama. It gets bogged down in the history of a women's prison that one of Caelum's relatives started more than 100 years earlier. Clearly, this subject is important to Lamb -- he's spent years teaching female prisoners in the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut -- and there's fascinating material here about the counterproductive ways we punish people, but he seems strangely unwilling to provide much insight into the lives of the women inmates. Instead, in a move that ruins the engaging domestic storyline, Maureen is pushed off stage when Caelum discovers in his attic a collection of 19th-century letters that mention everybody from Mark Twain to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Nikola Tesla.
Herein begins an exceedingly tedious mystery about the real identity of Caelum's late mother. He gives the old letters to a feminist scholar for her dissertation about the founding of the women's prison, and at least 75 pages of her scholarly document are dumped into the novel, with deadening effect. Even Caelum complains about how boring this is. Trying to read his friend's dissertation, he says, "I shifted the pillows, glanced over at the clock radio. Only nine twenty-three? God, it felt more like midnight." Rarely have I felt such empathy with a character. "I fought it for as long as I could, attempting over and over to get to the end of that same sentence. Then I surrendered to sleep."
But I still had more than 100 pages to go. And then Lamb's "Afterword." And then his "Notes From the Author." And then his "Acknowledgments." And then his "List of Sources Consulted." And then his list of "Charitable Donations." All so earnest and far, far too much. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.