Book review: The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb)

You know those independent films that come from nowhere, with little budgets, amazing casts (composed equally of the famous and the nobody), simple storylines and MASSIVE FOLLOWINGS? Those wacky movies that blow Tom Cruise’s latest cheesy offering right outta the water? Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Lars and The Real Girl, The Garden State, and others?

Wally Lamb’s writing reminds me of those movies. Every single time.

His breakthrough first novel, I Know This Much Is True, knocked my socks off and made my exclusive Top 10. His second, She’s Come Undone, made me cry in the car. That never happens. And this masterpiece, The Hour I First Believed, set as it is in the run-up to and aftermath of the Columbine shootings, blew me away – if you’ll pardon the totally inappropriate pun.

Why is Wally Lamb such a genius?

Because he creates sad, damaged, lonely, real people. They’re not characters. They’re human beings; flesh and blood. They’re the sad guy at the corner cafe. The fat lady who cleans the canteen. The unfriendly nurse at your doctor’s office. They’re present in your life – and their heartbreaking stories weave slyly through your legs like mangy cats – only you don’t see them.

Right, now, onto the story at hand.

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen co-exist in a shaky marriage with more downs than ups – there’s a lot of bitterness; a lot of mutual resentment. So off they go to Littleton, Colorado, hoping to find the elusive fresh start. He’s a teacher and she’s a nurse, and in no time at all, they’re settled in a new school. But if you think that’s ‘all she wrote’, you don’t know Wally Lamb.

Caelum and Maureen make connections with the kids and with their fellow staff members. Maureen even takes a troublemaking teenage stray under her wing. And then, catastrophe. For their place of work is Columbine High School and one day, two students go on a murderous rampage. But again, in Lamb form, this book manages to be about more than the massacre.

It’s about what happens after the tragedy; about how the people involved come to terms with their losses and with being spared; about the many ways in which they don’t deal with it at all. Like Lamb’s first two novels, it’s about the small, prickly, maddening sufferings of real people.

“I just wish to Christ I’d gotten up the stairs that night. Made love to her. Held her in my arms and made her feel safe. Because time was almost up. They’d bought their guns, taped their farewell videos finalized their plans. They’d worked their last shift together at Blackjack—had made and sold me that pizza that, piece by piece, Mo and I had lifted out of the box and eaten. Chaos was coming, and it would drive us both so deeply into the maze that we’d wander among the corpses, lost to each other for years.”

Other reviewers have called it ‘bloated’, ‘massive’, ‘big’ – for me, though it did ramble a little in places, it is a book into which I could quite happily have dug for another 617 pages. It is an exceptional book.