VJ Books Blog

(www.cleveland.com, Nov. 16, Janet Okoben)

Wally Lamb’s ‘The Hour I First Believed‘ is bleak but beautiful

Reading Wally Lamb’s new novel, his first in 10 years, is akin to putting on flannel pajamas during the first cold snap of the season.

Nothing fancy here. But what a comfort to get lost in Lamb’s characters. Just a few pages in, we remember how much there was to like about his previous books, “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True,” in the same way pulling on flannel after a long, hot summer can feel surprisingly good.

It seems that Lamb has taken most of the subjects that crossed his field of vision during the past decade and found them a place in “The Hour I First Believed.”

His specialty has always been writing beautifully in the voices of damaged people, and in the new novel those injured ones line up like dominoes.

The shootings at Columbine High School start the book, and while the trauma inflicted on Maureen Quirk, one of the central characters, haunts the pages to the end, this is not a story about Columbine.

A women’s prison in Connecticut gets as much attention. Maureen’s husband, Caelum, grew up on a farm next to the prison hearing stories about his ancestors who founded the reformatory. The real-life York Correctional Institution, where Lamb has taught writing for several years, clearly provides inspiration.

Caelum turns out to be a grizzled and likable middle-age narrator, who whips us back and forth in time as he lays the foundation for the many plots that develop.

He teaches English, and his third wife, Maureen, is a school nurse. They move to Colorado for a fresh start after a rough patch in their marriage. They take jobs at Columbine High School, but a death in the family causes Caelum to be absent the day of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s murderous shooting spree in 1999.

Columbine inspired Jodi Picoult’s recent novel, “Nineteen Minutes,” and it can be jarring when fresh tragedy is co-opted for fiction. Lamb retells the rampage with the real names of victims, but inserts his own character, Maureen, crouched into a storage cabinet.

In the aftermath, Caelum and Maureen move back to Connecticut, where at least three other major story lines pick up.

The book is bleak. So why, then, is it so hard to put down? In the same way that “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True,” are downbeat, all three stories, nevertheless, rise on Lamb’s considerable gift for nuance and complexity.

Oprah Winfrey says Lamb “gets women,” but he also seems to get the despair and grief that has characterized our nation over these last few years.

Case in point: A subplot pivots on Hurricane Katrina. Lamb wrenches out details but doesn’t dwell. His pacing is superb: Sections of the story expand to accommodate a mix of characters, yet scenes don’t linger overlong.

This novel reads as if it contains kernels of other books within it. In the afterword, Lamb alludes to the stops and starts he underwent in the writing. One lengthy portion, told in the form of a doctoral thesis, will be your least favorite. It is too jarring. The author is at his considerable best when he gives breadth and range to his characters.

The 738 pages are either inviting or daunting. And “The Hour I First Believed” is still shorter than the 900 pages Lamb lavished on “I Know This Much Is True.” In his deft hands, the length serves. I’ve worked much harder to finish books not half as long.

Okoben is an education reporter for The Plain Dealer.