(originally reviewed for HipsterBookClub.com in January 2009)
THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED
By WALLY LAMB
752 pages; Hardcover
Reviewed by Samantha Storey
Wally Lamb has a pretty decent literary track record. His past two efforts, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True were both selected for Oprah’s Book Club in the 1990s, sending him high into home-sweet-midwestern heaven. In The Hour I First Believed, Lamb delivers another layered, multi-generational epic revolving around one guy, his flaws, and the crazy world around him.
The Hour I First Believed revolves around Caelum Quirk—a twice-divorced English teacher seemingly content to dwell in the struggle of a third marriage. Quirk and his wife Maureen transplant themselves from Connecticut to Colorado and get jobs at Columbine High School. It comes as no surprise, however, that one of the characters—in this case, Maureen—is present, and in one of the more intense locations, during the now-infamous school shooting in 1999. In describing the events that made way for Caelum’s absence and Maureen’s trauma, Lamb is nothing if not thorough. At times, the book reads like a press release, even including a timeline of the actual events and creating scenes where Caelum converses with Columbine gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the days before the shooting. If it were entirely fiction, the exchanges would be telling scenes with insight into adolescent normality; as it is, however, the fictional implications of real people might be made in good faith but come across awkward and unnecessary.
Compelled by Maureen’s post-traumatic stress following the shooting, as well as by the passing of Caelum’s aunt, the Quirks jump back to Connecticut to save the family farm, or at least take shelter there while they get their lives back on track. It’s that feeling, though—that a life derailed can easily be fixed with therapy or medication—that propels the drama. Lamb goes to great lengths to set the stage for Maureen’s mental instability, culminating in her imprisonment at the women’s prison next door to the Quirk house and founded by Caelum’s grandmother.
Overwhelmingly, The Hour I First Believed seems to be populated by events first and characters second in a weird sort of overdose of tragedy. In addition to Columbine, Lamb goes in-depth on a slew of issues including Hurricane Katrina; the treatment of female correctional inmates; the economy; 9/11; adultery; homosexuality; the war in Iraq; the treatment of mental health patients; drug, sexual, and physical abuse; and essentially, the consequences of every bad decision ever made. It’s difficult to mentally digest that all of these events have actually happened in the past 10 years, but also that one family—nay, one man—would be so directly affected by all of them.
Though Maureen and Caelum’s joint struggle is the main focus, new characters arise with every issue. Unlike other mainstream novels, there are few, if any, vague characters roaming around in The Hour I First Believed; each character is painstakingly excavated well beyond the obligatory back story. To supplement his income once Maureen is incarcerated, Caelum takes on two full-time jobs and rents out the upper level of his house to Katrina refugees. The side stories that stems from these characters are interesting but feel a little like filler. While one of the refugees, a young woman called Janis, digs into Caelum’s ancestors’ past, Lamb includes not only her findings in the house but news articles and even a 60-page doctoral thesis Janis writes to complete her degree. The novel slowly becomes less about the focus and more about how deeply and thoroughly Lamb can depict Caelum, right down to the personal identity crisis breakdown in the middle of an apple barn.
Despite the issues and painstaking average length of his novels (689 pages), Lamb’s stories are generally readable and emotive and this is no exception. The main problem here is that there is simply too much going on, so the focus—people in crisis—is at best blurry and at worst tragic overkill. Regular Lamb readers will appreciate recurring characters (Dominick Birdsey from I Know This Much Is True, for instance) and the epic struggle his characters face in justifying, defending, accepting, and rejecting religion. Lamb’s voice behind the characters within is genuine and authentic as they struggle to find purpose and meaning in life. It’s a shame their stories never seem to find their footing.