The Hour I First Believed
By Dorothy Schilling
Begun in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Wally Lamb’s new novel follows Columbine teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife, the school’s nurse, Maureen, as they attempt to extricate themselves from the chaos of the tragedy. The couple flee to Connecticut and to the seemingly safe house and farm of Caelum’s childhood. While Caelum works to help his wife regain her sanity, he must face his own painful past while facing other terrifying world events, including 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and hurricane Katrina.
In incorporating these events into his story, Lamb attempts to confront the actual ‘monsters’ that lie at the centre of violence instead of symbolising it fictitiously. At times this confrontation is successful, such as with his poignant treatment of the Columbine shootings, but his use of subsequent events is less so.
Lamb’s Caelum also falls short of his Dolores Price in ‘She’s Come Undone’ or Dominick Birdsey in ‘I Know this Much is True’, who makes various cameo appearances here as a former high school teammate – the two men share an awkward exchange in the office of their common psychiatrist, who also appears in both novels. In a conversation with a student, Caelum also refers to an incident in ‘True’ in which Dominick’s twin brother cuts off his own hand.
Unfortunately, the borrowed references emphasise the discrepancies between Caelum’s character and those of Dolores and Dominick. He oscillates between supportive husband, angry victim, repenting sinner and perceptive teacher, but with either no discernible connection or an all-too-obvious motivation behind his many faces. He fails to come alive in the same subtle and seamless way, giving deliberate, calculated statements which sometimes leave him sounding forced and boxy. However, it is through his unreliable eyes that the successful supporting cast takes shape, demonstrating Lamb’s greatest strength as a writer.