‘The Hour I First Believed’ by Wally Lamb

October 27, 2015 at 12:01 am 1 comment

130166I found myself reading this book about the Columbine shooting at about the same time there was a mass shooting at a school in Oregon. While surreal to read a story about the motives and internal lives of mass killers during the aftermath of a similar shooting, that context added a depth, I think, to this reading experience that otherwise might have been lacking.

Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher at Columbine, happens to be in Connecticut dealing a family emergency when two students execute one of the most truly terrifying acts of violence in recent history. His wife, Maureen, is not so lucky — she happens to be in the library when the shooting begins, which those well-versed in Columbine history will know was the scene of most of the deaths. Maureen hides in a cabinet to escape, silently saying rosaries, trying not to breathe audibly, and scratching a note to her husband on the inside of the door, so if she is killed, he’ll know she was thinking of him.

It is horrifying. Lamb does an incredible job of plumbing the emotional depths of both Maureen, a victim who can’t seem to escape this event, and Caelum, who is watching his wife slowly unravel. Two things struck me for the first time in reading this book — one, that this is one of those rare mass shootings conducted by a pair of gunmen, rather than an isolated one; and two, how much more dramatic and horrifying Columbine felt before we had mass shootings every year (or even more often). Lamb deftly shows how two boys can feed off of one another’s violence, and how that violence has terrifying ripples that go further than anyone can guess.

At the same time…this was not my favorite Lamb work. At times, it felt disjointed, and I cared much, much less about Caelum and his story than I think Caelum himself could imagine. It’s hard to sympathize with a man who is so self-absorbed, so wrapped up in his own life, so unwilling to do what he can to help his wife. I think Lamb drew him this way on purpose, and Caelum comes around….but it makes for a less enjoyable experience.

I simply think that maybe Lamb was trying to do too much. There are plots everywhere — the baker and his search for a car, the course in myths Caelum is teaching, the plotlines surrounding Caelum’s father and the women’s prison near his childhood home, the tenants he welcomes in, the young girl who was also at Columbine with his wife. It’s just so much, and some parts seem to get a bit bogged down. And maybe I wasn’t getting what Lamb was trying to say — maybe I didn’t give it enough time or attention (it seems, according to this site, that perhaps I am at fault, and not Lamb). But I think he accomplished something a bit more ambitious more successfully in I Know This Much Is True.

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Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction. Tags: , , .

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