The Hour I First Believed

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5

The protagonist of two-time Oprah anointee Wally Lamb’s latest novel, Caelum Quirk, is a misery lodestone. His beloved aunt has just died. Then, while he’s at her funeral in Connecticut, two students orchestrate a massacre at the Colorado high school where he and his wife, Maureen, teach (name: Columbine). Maureen survives by hiding in the library, but afterward suffers from acute post-traumatic stress.

Most authors would find this sufficient tragedy to mull over in one book, but Lamb needs more. Throughout the rest of this novel’s turgid 700-plus pages, he throws everything but the kitchen sink at the cringing Quirks: child and drug abuse, vehicular manslaughter, prison, reverberations from Hurricane Katrina (two New Orleans refugees become Caelum’s tenants), adultery, the Iraq War (a troubled vet in Caelum’s community-college class melts down and goes on a shooting spree). Lamb even throws in a soap-operatic brain aneurysm for good measure. After leaving Colorado for the safer confines of his family’s Connecticut farm, Caelum discovers an ancestor’s treasure trove of letters, and a subnarrative develops as he tries to make sense of his hazy genealogy in order to cope with his own ruined life.

Lamb anticipates the most obvious criticism of The Hour I First Believe—that of not sufficiently fictionalizing a highly publicized, contemporary bloodbath—in an unconvincing afterword in which he claims a “responsibility to name the Columbine victims rather than blur their identity” and “broaden understanding, the better to prevent future tragedy.” Admirable goals, to be sure, but his semifictional treatment of the tragedy doesn’t add much new insight. Consequently, it doesn’t illuminate a notorious school shooting so much as exploit it.

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Lamb reads Wed 12.

By Wally Lamb. Harper, $29.95.