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Pickle Me This

December 9, 2008

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

I’m really not sure what posterity will make of Wally Lamb. I’ve forgotten much about his two previous novels in the ten years since I’ve read them, though it should be noted also that I was a less attentive reader then. Of course, I don’t mean to say that Lamb’s books are forgettable, but rather they’re so tied up in zeitgeist, so steeped in here and now, that I’m altogether curious about how they’ll end up traveling through time.

The Hour I First Believed plants the fictional Caelum Quirk in nonfictional terrain. Though he and his wife Maureen both work at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, it is only Caelum who has the strange fortune of being on the other side of the country on April 20, 1999. While Maureen is at work– she’s a school nurse– and she’s in the school’s library when the two infamous killers burst in. Her strange fortune is to find shelter curled up inside a cabinet where she hides for hours, listening to the massacre, to blaring fire alarms, and being unsure of whether she will live or die.

Maureen survives, but she also doesn’t, as the Maureen emerging from the tragedy is somebody new altogether. She is racked by Post Traumatic Stress, left unable to work for a long time, becomes addicted to her medication, and begins upon a downward spiral that takes her further from any chances of reconstructing her life. As for their life– Maureen’s and Caelum’s– their marriage had been on shaky ground already, Caelum a troubled and sometimes unsympathetic narrator/husband, often acting on his worst instincts and internalizing his feelings. Neither he nor Maureen is able to give the other what they need.

Columbine is a moment in this book then, but it is not the moment, not in a book that reaches up into the present and far back into the past. Following Caelum Quirk against a backdrop that includes September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. And also back into his ancestry, from his alcoholic Korean War-vet father, his great-grandmother the women’s prisons reformer, and his great-great-(great?) grandmother, the formidable abolitionist and civil war nurse. Caelum coming to understand the weight of a single moment in the context of chaos theory, how one event can resonate back and forth through time.

At 700+ pages, this book is huge, though it is stuffed with plot rather than verbosity. Also worth noting that somehow it is not so heavy, and really not a strain on the old wrists. And that though some parts dragged and I skimmed more than I would have liked, reading it was a pleasure. I loved this enormous book, and I was sorry when it was finished, which is certainly saying something for a book that is so fat.

Lamb’s novel uses extra-textual devices to gain access to the past without breaking from his plot– diary excerpts, letters, reports, even parts of a PhD. thesis. Elsewhere the novel uses email and news reports (actual or otherwise) to broaden its scope, and though these can be effective, they do run on long. These were the parts where I found myself skimming, and I’m not sure my skimmage really detracted from the reading experience– cutting some of these bits would have helped the book slim down, and allowed the focus to stay on the characters we really care about (because they are so evocatively portrayed that we really really do).

Wally Lamb does amazing things with fact and fiction here though, inserting his characters into actual situations, and not just Columbine– for example, Caelum’s great-grandmother recounting the day she met Mark Twain. Lamb has the Quirks interacting with actual victims of the Columbine killings, lending verisimilitude to this fictional world. The fictional plot similarly taking on actual issues, including the current events already mentioned, and Lamb draws on his experience as a teacher in a women’s prison to address prisoner’s rights and possibilities of rehabilitation. Showing we’ve come far from the days when a prison warden could hang on her office wall a sign that said, “A woman who surrenders her freedom need not surrender her dignity”.

The Hour I First Believed is massive and American in its scope, self-consciously an epic quest narrative, and like I said, I am not completely sure how perpetuity will receive it. Which is not to undermine, because I think this book is so important for right now. A gorgeous story that manages to make sense of the times we live in, which is a miraculous achievement, actually. I plan to remember this one for a long while.

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