(Dallas Morning News, Nov. 23, Joy Tipping)
Wally Lamb’s readers must be among the standard-bearers of literary patience: It’s been 10 years since his last novel, I Know This Much Is True, although he has edited two books of stories from the women of York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, where he teaches writing workshops.
The author’s experiences with women inmates strongly influenced the new book, The Hour I First Believed, 700-plus extraordinary pages in which he explores the ramifications of violence, from the shootings at Columbine High School, to the hot-flash temper of a cuckolded husband, to the self-inflicted furies of drug and alcohol abuse.
The book’s narrator, middle-aged Caelum Quirk, and his wife, Maureen, are happily ensconced at Columbine (he’s a teacher, she’s a school nurse) as the book opens just a few days before April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris let loose their rage in the Colorado school.
The day before the massacre, Caelum is called away to his hometown of Three Rivers, Conn., when the aunt who raised him has a stroke. Caelum is making funeral plans when a TV broadcast alerts him to the tragedy playing out at Columbine. Unable to reach Maureen by phone, he high-tails it back to Colorado.
She had, it turns out, hidden from the killers by scrunching herself into a library cabinet, staying there for hours. She heard the gunfire, heard the screams, heard students begging for mercy, heard the gunmen taunting their victims with “peekaboo!” before firing point-blank.
Although Maureen isn’t physically injured, both she and Caelum get shredded by the psychological shrapnel. They move back to Connecticut, where the catastrophic consequences of Maureen’s drug abuse land her in a women’s prison next door to the Quirk family farm, a prison founded by Caelum’s ancestress and named for her.
Mr. Lamb brilliantly weaves together the contemporary stories of the Quirks, a bad-girl Columbine student named Velvet who stays in their lives, the real-life Columbine gunmen and their victims, and Moses and Janice, Hurricane Katrina evacuees who rent Caelum’s upstairs while Maureen is incarcerated.
Mark Twain, Dorothea Dix and Nicola Tesla make cameo appearances, as do the Birdsey twins from I Know This Much Is True. Every character is rendered with vivid, utterly convincing depth.
The Hour I First Believed is, at heart, a study of character and society and how they mold one another, but under Mr. Lamb’s incandescent stewardship, it’s also a thriller and a heck of a page-turner. I would rather not wait 10 years for his next novel. But if that’s what it comes to, I’ll be first in line come 2018.