Abolitionists, addiction, alcoholism, the Civil War, the Korean conflict and Columbine all contribute to the oversized canvas that is Wally Lamb's new work, "The Hour I First Believed."
Reading this novel is like looking into an abyss, confronting some events that are tragic and others that are just difficult and trying to find a way to live.
Caelum Quirk and his third wife, Maureen, were brought to the edge of their marriage by Maureen's infidelity and Caelum's violently angry reaction to the betrayal. Maureen is a nurse and Caelum a high school English teacher. They live in Connecticut, where Caelum can keep an eye on the family farm in Three Rivers, and his only surviving relative, Aunt Lolly, who lives there.
The desire to put their marriage back together leads them away from Connecticut. Maureen's estranged father lives in Colorado, and she thinks a move there might rebuild those splintered family ties. Caelum's teaching credentials transfer, as does Maureen's nursing license. They head west, buy a house in Centennial, and take jobs at Columbine High School.
In mid-April, 1999, they receive word that Aunt Lolly has had a stroke; Caelum returns to Connecticut. The stroke proves fatal, and he is in the midst of funeral preparations on April 20, when the first news bulletins from Columbine run. Shock and disbelief quickly turn to panic when he is unable to get in touch with Maureen. He returns to Colorado, finally finding Maureen in the gym at Leawood Elementary. Maureen had been trapped in Columbine's library, the day's hellish epicenter.
April 2009 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Columbine massacre; the intervening decade has brought mountains of speculation and a spate of legal battles, but little in the way of definitive answers. Much to Lamb's credit, he attempts neither to psychoanalyse nor in any other way explain the actions of the killers. What he accomplishes and does so very well is to explore what in his afterword he calls "the collateral damage."
Lamb names the victims, both living and dead, and writes, "To name the injured who survived is to acknowledge both their suffering and their brave steps past that terrible day into meaningful lives. To name the dead is to confront the meaning of their lives and deaths, and to acknowledge, as well, the strength and suffering of the loved ones they had to leave behind."
Maureen suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and sinks into a deep depression. Grief builds a wall that Caelum is unable to scale: "As scared as I'd been for her safety as much of a nightmare as that endless trip back from Connecticut had been it was she who'd had to hide for hours in the pitch-blackness of that cabinet, listening to the death screams, waiting for them to find and kill her, too. And I didn't know what that felt like. Didn't want to."
Later he describes his failure to reach his wife as feeling as though she is standing on a "small, lonely island," and he is calling to her. "But I can't reach her. Can't rescue her because . . . because the water between us is thick with sharks. Thick with the blood of those kids."
At the end of the school year, they sell their house and move back to Connecticut, to Lolly's farm. Distance should be a good thing, but the return doesn't soothe Maureen, and it resurrects Caelum's demons.
He is unable to find work as a high school teacher; the angry attack on his wife's lover has not been forgotten. He is haunted by the memory of his alcoholic father, who was killed when Caelum was a teen. These issues are pushed to the back burner, though. Trying to make enough money to pay the bills while taking care of Maureen takes more time than he has. Any other issues, well, they are most expediently self-medicated away.
Lamb's narrative Caelum's story quickly pulls the reader into the lives of its characters. His reconstruction of the day's events, and information drawn from the killers' videos and journals, are both necessary to his story and terribly difficult to read. Where the story weakens is in the latter part of the novel, when Lamb departs from Caelum's story to pursue a strand involving his great- and great- great-grandmothers. Though this detour is interesting history that eventually ties back to the central story and Caelum's search for identity, it isn't as compulsively readable as the rest of the novel.
Lamb casts a wide net and hauls back themes both grand and personal. On the large scale, there is the idea that safety is an illusion. What with Columbine, 9/11 and Katrina, we know that forces both man-made and natural can destroy lives without warning or reason. On a more personal level, of course, is how one deals with the vagaries of fate. And if fate deals a tragedy, then perhaps it takes an epic journey for a life to be reborn.
Lamb is exceptional in his exploration of the direct and indirect impacts of survivor guilt. And he makes it clear that, no matter how much the hearts of the community went out to those who lost loved ones and to those scarred by the killers, we still weren't capable of walking in their shoes.
Lamb may get as close as it's possible to get to that experience. The result is anything but pretty, and overall it is heartbreakingly sad.
At the end, though, it's all about whether it's possible to move on. And the answer is that it is though not universally.
This review first appeared in The Denver Post.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009