The Hour I First Believedby Wally Lamb
When high school teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife, Maureen, a school nurse, move to Littleton, Colorado, they both get jobs at Columbine High School. In April 1999, while Caelum is away, Maureen finds herself in the library at Columbine, cowering in a cabinet and expecting to be killed. Miraculously, she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from… See more details below
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When high school teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife, Maureen, a school nurse, move to Littleton, Colorado, they both get jobs at Columbine High School. In April 1999, while Caelum is away, Maureen finds herself in the library at Columbine, cowering in a cabinet and expecting to be killed. Miraculously, she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from the trauma. When Caelum and Maureen flee to an illusion of safety on the Quirk family's Connecticut farm, they discover that the effects of chaos are not easily put right, and further tragedy ensues.
Lamb’s third novel tackles the Columbine high school shooting head on as he places his fictional protagonists into the horrific events of April 1999. Caelum and his wife, Maureen, move to Colorado for teaching jobs at Columbine not long before the shootings. As the events unfold, Maureen finds herself in harms way but luckily survives, only to be haunted by the occurrence. Narrator George Guidall reads with an earnest, familiar voice. He draws listeners into this fascinating tale with nothing more than raw emotion and honesty; rarely does such a straightforward performance tap into the human psyche so effectively. A HarperCollins hardcover. (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Could I have acted as courageously as teacher Dave Sanders, who sacrificed his life in the act of shepherding students to safety? Would I have had the strength to attend those memorials and funerals to which I sent my protagonist?
Delving into the enigma of the killers' motives, he points to the challenge that a novelistic treatment of the tragedy entailed:
The depth and scope of Harris and Klebold's rage, and the twisted logic by which they convinced themselves that their slaughter of the innocent was justified, both frightened and confounded me. I felt it necessary to confront the "two-headed monster" itself, rather than concoct Harris- and Klebold-like characters. Were these middle-class kids merely sick, or were they evil?....Why all this rage? Why all these deaths and broken-hearted survivors?
Lamb asks worthy questions. Unfortunately for readers, he appears to have grown frustrated by his inability to answer them, because this 723-page book, which starts off with its focus on Columbine, devolves into a loose, baggy social-historical novel that spans two centuries and somehow manages to address at length such disparate issues as the Civil War, the advent of women's prisons in America, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War. The specters of Harris and Klebold, so stark and affecting in the early pages of this book, recede with every tangential plotline.
The tenuous thread tying this all together is middle-aged English teacher Caelum Quirk, a thrice-married Connecticut native whose gravestone should probably read, "Romeo has nothing on me. Here lies fortune's foe." Example: His alcoholic father died when Caelum was 14, because the old man was fishing on a railroad bridge, passed out drunk, got hit by train, lost both legs, and bled to death.
As in Lamb's two previous novels, She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, messy, star-crossed lives are the norm, not the exception. We first meet Caelum and his third wife, Maureen, after their relocation from Connecticut to Littleton, where Caelum is an English teacher at Columbine and Maureen is a school nurse. Back in Connecticut, their marriage had been foundering. Maureen had cheated on Caelum, and he got revenge by attacking his wife's lover; in turn, Caelum lost his teaching job. Hoping to revive their marriage (and to escape the gossip of small-town Three Rivers), he and Maureen move to Littleton. Why there? Because Maureen wants to be close to her father, who's remarried and lives in Denver -- and who, after Maureen's mother died, used to sneak into his 11-year-old daughter's room and masturbate before her.
This is among the first of many confounding plot developments in this novel -- twists that complicate the narrative but ultimately distort to little purpose and generate no sympathy for the characters.
Much of that complication arises in the retrospective unfolding of Caelum and Maureen's lives back in Connecticut, where they resided on the Quirk family farm, a 200-acre tract that also contains a 50-acre maximum-security women's prison. The story behind the prison (not to mention its convenient location, right down the road from the family's house) will play an enormous, exasperating role in the second half of the novel. The Quick Correctional Institute -- named in honor of Caelum's reform-minded female ancestors -- is also the workplace of Caelum's beloved aunt, Lolly, last in a line of family members who worked at the prison. With his mother dead of cancer and his childhood memories in the shadow of a withholding family overall, Lolly is the only relation who hasn't contributed to Caelum's jaded personality. In the beginning of The Hour I First Believed, the protagonist certainly doesn't believe in much, least of all God.
In April 1999, these plot threads intersect: Lolly suffers a stroke, so Caelum returns to Connecticut to take care of her. While he's gone, Harris and Klebold go on their rage-fueled rampage.
They'd been planning it for a year, hiding their intentions in plain sight on paper, on videotape, over the Internet. In their junior year, one had written in the other's yearbook, "God, I can't wait till they die. I can taste the blood now." And the other had answered, "Killing enemies, blowing up stuff, killing cops! My wrath will be godlike!"
When the attack starts, Maureen is in the library, the site of the worst carnage. As Harris and Klebold mock and antagonize their victims, asking them if they believe in God, Maureen hides in a cabinet. Caelum, back in Connecticut and watching the harrowing footage on television, has no idea if she's alive or dead, so he races back to Colorado.
Maureen survives the library scene, but she's a shell of her former self. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She can't sleep and has headaches and nausea. Certain smells and loud noises trigger flashbacks. On a trip to Home Depot, the scent of the lumber department reminds her of the inside of the library cabinet, where she'd hid and prayed. "Afraid," she says. "I'm always afraid." She becomes addicted to medication, while Caelum starts drinking more than usual.
Back in Connecticut, Lolly dies, and the farm with its tangled legal situation passes to Caelum. He decides that the safety of the estate -- far away from Littleton and everything Columbine-related -- is the best thing for his wife. Regrettably, the move does nothing for the momentum of this novel, which soon sinks beneath rediscovered family letters and diaries (many of them included in the book); uninteresting questions about Caelum's actual parents; and schmaltzy plot developments, e.g., a husband and wife, refugees from Hurricane Katrina, come to live on the farm, and the wife, a postgraduate women's studies major at Tulane, writes her master's thesis on Caelum's ancestors, in turn helping Caelum understand his past and (perhaps) himself.
In the dedication to his mother that prefaces the novel, Lamb says he had the title, The Hour I First Believed, "from the very beginning." The phrase is also the very last line of the book. In retrospect, that makes sense, because this novel doesn't read like it was a process of discovery. It reads like someone working backward (and the long way round) from a foregone conclusion. --Cameron Martin
From 1996 to 2007, Cameron Martin was an award-winning feature writer, columnist, and book reviewer with the Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate newspapers in Connecticut. He now freelances for Comcast SportsNet New England (covering the Red Sox) and for BugsandCranks.com, a web site dedicated to the lighter side of Major League Baseball. His short story "Once in Cassiopeia" -- about a woman who kills Osama bin Laden -- was published in the fall issue of Doublethink magazine.
Read an Excerpt
The Hour I First Believed
By Wally Lamb
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One They were both working their final shift at Blackjack Pizza that night, although nobody but the two of them realized it was that. Give them this much: they were talented secret-keepers. Patient planners. They'd been planning it for a year, hiding their intentions in plain sight on paper, on videotape, over the Internet. In their junior year, one had written in the other's yearbook, "God, I can't wait till they die. I can taste the blood now." And the other had answered, "Killing enemies, blowing up stuff, killing cops! My wrath will be godlike!"
My wrath will be godlike: maybe that's a clue. Maybe their ability to dupe everyone was their justification. If we could be fooled, then we were all fools; they were, therefore, superior, chaos theirs to inflict. But I don't know. I'm just one more chaos theorist, as lost in the maze as everyone else.
It was Friday, April 16, 1999, four days before they opened fire. I'd stayed after school for a parent conference and a union meeting and, in between, had called Maureen to tell her I'd pick up takeout. Blackjack Pizza was between school and home.
It was early still. The Friday-night pizza rush hadn't begun. He was at the register, elbows against the counter, talking to a girl in a hairdresser's smock. Or not talking, pretty much. There was a cell phone on the counter, and he kept tapping it with his index finger to make it spin-kept looking at the revolving cell phone instead of at the girl. I remember wondering if I'd just walked in on a lover's spat. "I better get back," the girl said. "See you tomorrow." Her smock said "Great Clips," which meant she worked at the salon next door-the place where Maureen went.
"Prom date?" I asked him. The big event was the next night at the Design Center in Denver. From there, the kids would head back to school for the all-night post-prom party, which I'd been tagged to help chaperone.
"I wouldn't go to that bogus prom," he said. He called over his shoulder. "How's his half-mushroom-half-meatball coming?" His cohort opened the oven door and peered in. Gave a thumbs-up.
"So tell me," I said. "You guys been having any more of your famous Blackjack flour wars?"
He gave me a half-smile. "You remember that?"
"Sure. Best piece you wrote all term."
He'd been in my junior English class the year before. A grade-conscious concrete sequential, he was the kind of kid who was more comfortable memorizing vocab definitions and lines from Shakespeare than doing the creative stuff. Still, his paper about the Blackjack Pizza staff's flour fights, which he'd shaped as a spoof on war, was the liveliest thing he'd written all term. I remember scrawling across his paper, "You should think about taking creative writing next year." And he had. He was in Rhonda Baxter's class. Rhonda didn't like him, though-said she found him condescending. She hated the way he rolled his eyes at other kids' comments. Rhonda and I shared a free hour, and we often compared notes about the kids. I neither liked nor disliked him, particularly. He'd asked me to write him a letter of recommendation once. Can't remember what for. What I do recall is sitting there, trying to think up something to say.
He rang up my sale. I handed him a twenty. "So what's next year looking like?" I asked. "You heard back from any of the schools you applied to?"
"I'm joining the Marines," he said.
"Yeah? Well, I heard they're looking for a few good men." He nodded, not smiling, and handed me my change.
His buddy ambled over to the counter, pizza box in hand. He'd lost the boyish look I remembered from his freshman year. Now he was a lanky, beak-nosed adult, his hair tied back in a sorry-looking ponytail, his chin as prominent as Jay Leno's. "So what's your game plan for next year?" I asked him.
"University of Arizona."
"Sounds good," I said. I gave a nod to the Red Sox cap he was wearing. "You follow the Sox?"
"Somewhat. I just traded for Garciaparra in my fantasy league."
"Good move," I said. "I used to go to Sox games all the time when I was in college. Boston University. Fenway was five minutes away."
"Cool," he said.
"Maybe this is their year, huh?"
"Maybe." He didn't sound like he gave a shit either way.
He was in Rhonda's creative writing class, too. She'd come into the staff room sputtering about him one day. "Read this," she said. "Is this sick or what?" He'd written a two-page story about a mysterious avenger in a metal-studded black trench coat. As jocks and "college preps" leave a busy bar, he pulls pistols and explosives out of his duffel bag, wastes them, and walks away, smiling. "Do you think I should call his parents?" Rhonda had asked.
I'd shrugged. "A lot of the guys write this kind of crap. Too many video games, too much testosterone. I wouldn't worry about it. He probably just needs a girlfriend." She had worried, though, enough to make that call. She'd referred to the meeting, a week or so later, as "a waste of time."
The door banged open; five or six rowdy kids entered Blackjack. "Hey, I'll see you later," I said.
"Later," he said. And I remember thinking he'd make a good Marine. Clean-cut, conscientious, his ironed T-shirt tucked neatly into his wrinkle-free shorts. Give him a few years, I figured, and he'd probably be officer material.
At dinner that night, Maureen suggested we go out to a movie, but I begged off, citing end-of-the-week exhaustion. She cleaned up, I fed the dogs, and we adjourned to our separate TVs. By ten o'clock, I was parked on my recliner, watching Homicide with the closed-caption activated, my belly full of pizza. There was a Newsweek opened on my lap for commercial breaks, a Pete's Wicked ale resting against my crotch, and a Van Morrison CD reverberating inside my skull: Astral Weeks, a record that had been released in 1968, the year I turned seventeen.
Excerpted from The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb Copyright © 2008 by Wally Lamb. Excerpted by permission.
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