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Cue Chaos

By (April 1, 2009) 8 Comments

The Hour I First Believed

Wally Lamb
Harper, 2008

I don’t know, maybe we’re all chaos theorists. Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change. But we’re fascinated by it, too. Drawn to it. Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles. Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage.

It’s on this philosophy, stated on page 306, that Wally Lamb bases his newest novel. In an attempt, perhaps, to re-captivate the readership he established with his first two Oprah’s Book Club novels I Know This Much is True and She’s Come Undone, he mixes real events with fiction, real people with invented characters.

I’d like to think I began The Hour I First Believed with an open mind. I was aware, somewhat, of the nature of the content. The title made me nervous about potential religious undertones, but I faintly remembered having read one of Lamb’s previous novels and it was entertaining enough. With curiosity, I began reading.

The first thing that struck me was the casual nature of the prose. Abbreviations are used whenever possible, along with nicknames, not only while characters are talking, but in the narration as well. Questions are used to tell stories:

Hey, you think those Motor Vehicle employees are charmers when you’re in line? You should feel the love when you’re one of their community service penitents. This one woman? Had Disney crap pinned up all over her cubicle walls? She goes to her supervisor and accuses me of helping myself to the M&Ms in the glass canister on her desk. Which was bullshit.

The story begins in Littleton, Colorado in April of 1999, a few days before the shootings take place at Columbine High School. The main character is Caelum Quirk, a teacher at Columbine whose wife also works at the high school as the part-time school nurse. They are originally from New England but moved to Colorado a few years back.

Caelum is kicking off a typical Friday night at Black Jack Pizza (a Colorado pizza chain), picking up some dinner for himself and his wife. Preparing his pizza are none other than the Columbine killers themselves.

In their exchange at the pizza chain, Lamb invents the conversation Caelum Quirk has with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Having formerly taught both of them, Caelum is able to ask them about their future plans for prom and graduation. The interaction is casual.

After having the stage set for what we know is to come, we begin to learn some history about the main character. We discover that Caelum Quirk has been married three times. His third wife, Maureen, or Mo as she is called, cheated on him many years ago. To his embarrassment, Caelum was arrested for beating up her lover. He and Maureen went to counseling, and worked things out. Tonight, Maureen sends Caelum the “signal” they decided on in therapy that she needs to be held and loved, and he ignores it—something which causes him great guilt in the future. In this story, Lamb likes to tease the reader by giving them a taste of what is to come:

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.

Chaos becomes a central theme in the book, which Wally Lamb returns to over and over.

In his time at Columbine, Caelum hasn’t formed any deep connections with his students. Maureen is the opposite. She is a registered nurse, though her position at Columbine was at first only temporary, she found she grew to love interacting with the kids. In particular, she befriends an outcast named Velvet Hoon. Velvet is a foster child, doesn’t dress to fit in, and doesn’t do well in school—a fictional character. Maureen takes Velvet under her wing, and Velvet begins to call her “Mom.” This doesn’t sit well with Caelum.

Velvet is one example of the kids at Columbine who aren’t jocks or cheerleaders, and therefore don’t seem to fit in. Lamb paints a picture of a high school strongly divided. The freaks, like Velvet Hoon, are disliked by their peers and, in Caelum’s case, by teachers as well. Lamb generalizes about the problems plaguing public high schools:

The non-jocks, the readers, the gay kids, the ones starting to stew about social injustice: for these kids, ‘letting your freak flag fly’ is both self-discovery and self-defense. You cry for this bunch at the mandatory pep assemblies. Huddled together, miserably, in the upper reaches of the bleachers, wearing their oversized raincoats and their secondhand Salvation Army clothes, they stare down at the school-sanctioned celebration of the A-list students. They know bullying, these kids—especially the ones who refuse to exist under the radar. They’re tripped in the hallway, shoved against lockers, pelted with Skittles in the lunch room. For the most part, their tormentors are stealth artists…And if some unsubtle bully goes over the line and gets hauled to the office, there’s a better-than-average chance the vice principal in charge of discipline is an ex-jock and an ex-intimidator, too—someone who understands the culture, slaps the bully’s wrists, and sends him back to class.

Is Lamb basing this paragraph on an episode of the TV series Saved by the Bell, where jock Zack Morris rules the school, and the geeks and dweebs look miserable during the pep assemblies at the Max? The jocks don’t like to read, and the readers have to wear clothes from the Salvation Army. I can’t decide if they wear secondhand clothes as a statement, or because they are poor. At any rate, it seems Lamb has pinpointed the problem of school violence for us, and all we have to do to overcome it is replace all vice principals with people who liked to read as kids. Begin disassembly of all school metal detectors.

As the fateful day of the shootings looms, we learn more about our fictional main character. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was very religious. Caelum never connected with either of them, and both died when he was relatively young. He was mostly raised by his aunt Lolly, who’s still living in the house where Caelum grew up in Connecticut. She has a stroke in the days right before the shootings, and Caelum must fly out to be with her, even though he hasn’t seen her in years and barely speaks to her when she calls to chat.

On the flight, to Caelum’s dismay, he gets seated next to a chatty college professor who subtly sets the stage for the rest of the book by teaching Caelum about chaos-complexity theory. He says: “Order breeds habit, okay? But chaos breeds life.”

Cue chaos.

Caelum gets to his hometown and visits his aunt, but instead of improving, she dies. He begins making funeral plans, but not long after sees the coverage of the shootings on CNN. Concerned for his wife, he immediately flies back to Colorado.

Maureen was in the school when the shootings began and found at the epicenter of terror: in the Columbine library. She was hidden in a cabinet and heard students pleading for their lives – and in some cases being cruelly murdered. Her young project, Velvet, was also in the library at one of the tables.

At this point, journal entries and excerpts of video clips made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are inserted, along with quotes of what was said on the day of the shooting. Lamb seems to want to shock the reader with the absolute insanity of these boys. A real, minute-by-minute account is given of what was seen and heard, and no fictional characters are mentioned in this chapter.

In the coming days, Caelum goes to funerals and memorial services. Maureen occasionally attends, but with disastrous results. She is suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ironically, Lamb sees fit to comment on outsiders trying to be a part of the tragedy:

A pretty blond reporter at a highway rest stop was asking out of staters why they were making the pilgrimage [to the memorial service.] “We just want to be there for the families,’ a big guy in a fishing hat said. ‘Because we’re all Columbine.”

“Yeah? That right, buddy? Any of your kids in a coffin? Is your wife flinching every time you move to touch her?”

Maureen has flashbacks and can’t seem to function. She goes to a doctor who prescribes Xanax to calm her down and Restoril to help her sleep. She takes more of the medications than are prescribed because they make her feel numb.

Unsurprisingly, this is the beginning of the end for Maureen. After months of not getting any better, Caelum and Maureen decide to move back to Connecticut to live in Caelum’s aunt’s old house, now their own.

Maureen gets a little better and takes a job at a nursing home. At first she does well, but then begins to inject herself with Xanax meant for the patients. One night, while driving home with Xanax in her system, Maureen runs over a high school senior and kills him. She ends up in the Quirk Correctional Institution, the prison that Caelum’s great grandmother had imagined into existence 90 years ago. She had seen it as a place to rehabilitate women and put them back into society, but it’s now a far cry from her vision.

Every day in the institution is a struggle for Maureen and Caelum is struggling to make ends meet. He is working several jobs, one of which is teaching a class at a local community college. To supplement his income, he happens to rent a room out to a couple left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. The young and attractive wife, Janis, decides to research Caelum’s family history and discovers Caelum’s mother wasn’t really his mother.

Lamb uses many different styles in the second half of the novel. Some are newspaper stories, some are old letters sent from Caelum’s relatives. It seems the second half of the story, even with its plot twists and turns, is completely overshadowed by the first half—no matter how many different ways Lamb tries to write it.

Along with the discovery of his false mother, Caelum also finds two dead infants buried on his family’s property. A student of his, traumatized by time spent in Iraq and his classmates’ inability to understand, kills himself. Caelum’s Katrina victim tenant invites the brother of the boy Maureen ran over to come and work for him. He falls in love with Velvet Hoon, who followed the Quirks from Columbine.

After his student’s suicide, Caelum instructs his class to write about a painting by Picasso:

That best known of modern artists, Pablo Picasso, often drew on ancient myth for inspiration. He seemed particularly fascinated with the Minotaur, a creature to which he returned repeatedly. In a 1935 etching titled Minotauromachia, Picasso features the monster as a dominant figure in a dreamlike scene. A young girl, seemingly unafraid of the imposing man-beast faces him while clutching a bouquet in one hand, a lit candle in the other. The monster reaches toward the candle flame, but it is unclear whether his gesture is one of acceptance or rejection. Between the girl and the Minotaur, a wounded female matador lies draped across a wounded horse. At the left of the composition, a man in a loincloth looks over his shoulder while on the ladder. Is he climbing down into the chaotic scene or escaping from it?

For the end of the novel, the study of this painting becomes a study of Caelum’s perception of human nature. At first, he believes the little girl is no match for the Minotaur, and clearly the man in the loincloth is escaping the chaos instead of wanting to help.

After sorting though his feelings about his mother, watching his students mature in the face of their classmates’ suicide, and enduring Maureen’s sudden death from a brain aneurism, Caelum’s perspective changes.

Chaos breeds life, and life must go on. Velvet becomes pregnant, and the new life means a new beginning:

After I delivered Velvet back to the farmhouse that night, I entered the condo and walked over to my Minotauromachia. And as I stood before it, it was crystal clear to me that the terrible monster was doomed in the face of the powerful little girl.

I looked away, then from the impotent man-beast and down at the bust of Levi Popper, one of my fallen ancestor-uncles. I reached out and placed the curved palm of my hand against his cool marble skull. And in my hand resided, too, the tactile memory of what I had felt half an hour earlier, when I’d placed it against Velvet’s swollen belly. Feeling both at once—the cool, silent pull of the dead-but-living past and the rigorous kick of the future: that was when I finally understood what had until then eluded me.

And so, cold as a stone, Caelum Quirk finally learns that human nature is good, and that good can overcome evil. It only took three wives, a school shooting, a flood, a war, and some dead babies to do it. Chaos breeds life.

In real life, I have known very few people who were enlightened by tragedy. Many more were made angry, or bitter, or broken. Life surely does go on, but to me, tragedy does not benefit those it touches. Unless we are fortunate enough to sell a book about it.

In his afterword, Lamb explains why he chose to name both the living and dead victims, instead of blurring their identities:

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 their deaths, and to acknowledge, as well, the strength and suffering of the loved ones they had to leave behind.

Lamb does not seem inclined to concede that those victims’ lives had meaning even before the shootings—they did not need this event to create it for them. While lives were sadly changed by the Columbine shootings, it is arrogant to imply they were defined by it.

Julie McGinley was present during the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which she graduated in 2002. She currently lives in Boston. Her review of Love the One You’re With appeared in Open Letter’s Bestseller Issue in September 2008.

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  • Kris Wood says:

    WOw. While I so appreciate your perspective as one of those unlucky souls who experienced Columbine, I think your criticism of Wally Lamb’s, “The Hour I First Believed,” is REALly unfair.

    I read your critique with an open mind, yet your statement, “The title made me nervous about potential religious undertones,” in your second paragraph of comment, is disturbing to me, and shows a prejudicial and NOT open-minded nature, which turned out to be the case in reading your rather shallow critique.

    How completely off-base you are for implying “religious undertones”? I mean, I have to wonder if you actually read the book, that is so off base …

    If you did indeed read it (as I hope you may have, as it will be a VERy good thing for you) I think you are making a HUge, and maybe not uncommon, mistake in assuming the author is the narrator. I don’t think this is the case, and if you’d taken the time to read Lamb’s introduction or comments, or whatever (can’t exactly remember where I read Lamb’s comments on the novel), you should have realized that he is trying to present the reaction of an IMPerfect husband to such dire circumstances. Certainly you should be criticizing Maureen’s husband, that flawed character, rather than Wally Lamb.

    I will stop here, as I don’t have time to fully develop my response. But I had to immediately respond, as I find your critique SO unfair and off base. And I think this is an introspective and pheNOMENal novel.

    Lamb is one of our MOST amazing, talented authors. I love Wikipedia, but we need to hear other viewpoints. And this is mine, another one, quite different than yours.

    I DO plan to fully respond in the future when I have more time.

    Let me also say that I, TOO, am the victim of some terrible violence, including a rape and near death strangulation, both by strangers while traveling abroad. So I have some understanding of violence, though certainly nothing like Columbine.

    How wonderful that we have Wikipedia to allow us to share our views. This is mine. PLEase read Wally Lamb – “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much is True” are incredible novels — rare finds that change one as only great literature can.

    Also, Lamb also does amaAZing volunteer work with women in prison, which I fear may be the critic’s problem with Lamb? But be aware that perhaps 60% (probably more) of our prison population is there for non-violent crime. (Much due to ridiculous Republican mandatory drug laws that have flooded our prisons, making huge money for prison private industry, yet undermining our judicial system’s response to violent crime.)

    Other REALLY important themes in this novel are the ever increasing violence of young people, due to bullying?, violent online games?, or what? How REALLY important are these themes for us, as Americans, to discuss, be aware of, and perhaps act on.

    So this is perhaps a major part of my intensity at reacting to your superficial dismissal of Lamb.

    Only we, as Americans, can fix these embarrassing problems that do shadow our great country.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. Best wishes. Kris Wood

  • Gilyn Gibbs says:

    it’s very arrogant to believe that everyone is effected the same way you do. And this book was not necessarily to make Columbine victims feel better about what happened, but maybe make them feel like they could relate to something. Lamb wrote this book with only good intentions, you must keep that in mind. And although victims of something so atrocious as Columbine may not be defined by what happend, they are living in a world of before, and after.

    And after going back to read your critique: you seem unusually unhappy about the way Lamb has gone about writing about the Columbine and it’s effect on people. you say “it is arrogant to imply they were defined by it.” But then you say that the second half of the book overshadows the first. So to that, I say make up your mind. Do you want the book to be about Columbine, or do you want the book to be about life after Columbine. It seems to me that you would just rather hate all of it then appreciate any aspect of it. This is a somber book that I assume only had the goal of making people feel connected and maybe give them the strength to find the good in everything- you obviously didn’t get the message.

  • Volly says:

    I just happen to be on my second read-through of this novel. No one should attempt to understand it from just one reading; there is simply too much in it. I’ve critiqued this book elsewhere and my main complaint is its excess ambition — I have counted AT LEAST 14 stand-alone subplots here. Throughout, I have felt some unease at the subject matter and have wondered exactly what Lamb was attempting to accomplish by using it as a backdrop. I’m assuming that the events in Littleton moved him to the point that he needed a catharsis or a purging of sorts. The story (which one? there were several) was already in his head and Columbine was the unifying thread. In my opinion, the story would have done better with a fictionalized traumatic incident for Maureen that didn’t capitalize on the real-life stories of the victims and survivors. I seriously doubt that there is no one who experienced the shootings who could not have rendered an equally moving and effective novel.

    Those who would defend Lamb by pointing out the vast assortment of “9/11” themed fiction ignore the fact that this event really did not directly touch the lives of “everyone” in the country as the World Trade Center attacks did. If Caelum and Maureen had been cast as employees at, say, some other high school and experienced the trauma second-hand, I believe this novel would have had more credibility.

    Still…Lamb’s an excellent storyteller and this one will stay on my shelves and not be sold on Ebay. I can’t help but wonder, though, if he will have anything left to write about after this?

  • Kris C says:

    I cannot say that I’ve been through what this reviewer has been though – but I have been through tragedy in my life. I found “The Hour” to be a beautiful, heartbreaking composition that truly summed up how tragedy can affect a person. Personally, it took me over 10 years to see the silver lining in my own tragedy – but it did exist. Wally’s writing is like comfort food for the soul.

  • Ash says:

    In real life, I have known very few people who were enlightened by tragedy. Many more were made angry, or bitter, or broken. Life surely does go on, but to me, tragedy does not benefit those it touches. Unless we are fortunate enough to sell a book about it.

    I agree with you that people struck by tragedy are not necessarily the ones enlightened by it. I’ve known a lot more people enlightened by the aftermath of tragedy – the art and stories that come out of it – than by directly experiencing a tragedy. While I would never wish something so horrible on anyone, I prefer that people learn from the tragedies that do happen and that means that someone has to struggle through and build something out of the destruction.

  • Priscilla says:

    I, too, was put off by the title. Having been raised in a fundamentalist protestant home in which religion/faith was used as an excuse for verbal and physical violence against children, I didn’t really want to get sucked into some pro-religious dogma. I was also put off by the focus on the Columbine tragedy – my son was in high school at the time and I was unable to focus on the book’s plots without thinking and worrying about his wellbeing.

    I’m so glad that I was finally able to read the book. I found Lamb’s descriptions of the massacre to be true to published accounts without, in any way, claiming to speak for individuals’ experiences of it. I also found his descriptions of the ways in which people believe/don’t believe to be entirely respectful of any and all perspectives.

    To some extent, I think that the similarities between many points of view in the book and my own (anti-violence, kindness as a key virtue, using one’s power with care and due diligence, the value of both scepticism and faith) made the book more meaningful to me than it might have, had I had opposing values. On the other hand, I found the author to be respectful of the view points of others with a wide range of values and beliefs.

    I read somewhere that Lamb is a “modern-day Dostoevsky”. I found that the power of Lamb’s writing, the detail and the unflinching portrayal of flawed human beings do bring Dostoevsky to mind. However, Lamb’s narrative never loses the possibility of hope, even in the midst of despair.

    I loved this book, as I did his earliest novels. I find it powerful, entertaining and instructive.

  • John Haines says:

    The trouble when you have a real life tragedy as the thread or one of the threads in an otherwise fictional tale, the book then gets reviewed more on how this is handled rather than its true literary merit. But for me, a potentially great book has been reduced not just to mediocrity but to the sad classification ‘Poor’ and this is for a number of reasons.

    It is too long. Now a humungous page / word count are not automatically a problem per se, but of course, if one chooses to knock out a literary monster in this context, then one has to fill those pages with quality, just as one would do for a 3 / 400 pager, a novella or a short story. This does not happen. Not so much over-detailed as over-everything, this tale could have been told just as effectively minus 300 pages. No singular recognisable plot in the physical / grammatical / chronological sense, but more a spiritual and emotional journey from the dark to the light, but even this is not handled well at all. The alternate story (far bigger than a back story) of the Popper / Quirk family history disrupts the flow of the here and now offering. Plus for my money, the 19th century entries do not morph over time and yet influence Caelum’s life; what happened with the Popper’s happened, and apart from the gruesome contents in the locker, I don’t think Matriarch Popper’s life and doings really influence events in Caelum’s life that much; his influences and problems have a real beginning with the family he actually knew, so events Popper are for me, a very sticky-out superfluosity: interesting, and in fact very very well written and enjoyable, but if I want Roots mixed with Peyton Place I’ll either look for such an animal or write it myself.

    And – pardon the pun in advance – there are some grammatical quirks I do not like, not errors, I just don’t think it’s ever a good idea. Mr Lamb for reasons best known to him, will suddenly have a few pages where Caelum is letting the reader know second hand what was said during a conversation. Usually, you’ll get short sharp snippets of this, from any writer, and that’s fine. But surely, if this is going to hog a goodly amount of space then Mr Lamb could have shown us the courtesy of bunging some speech marks to these paras and let us read them in proper conversation form.

    Suddenly skewing off and throwing in the diary entries. Ok, you do get used to this, but – again in my opinion – this is not good, especially as a chapter opener. Old fashioned it may be, but I prefer summat like ‘I flopped on the couch and carried on from where I left off. . .’

    And possibly the worst of the lot. This is a popular writing technique in Japan I am led to believe, but to throw in something which has happened and is presented to us, the reader, as if we already know, when in fact we haven’t been made privy to but eventually are, is, odd – again not wrong – but very very odd and in this book it does not lend itself well to an already awkward, disjointed rambling offering.

    So, on Oprah it may have been, sold many it may have done, but a good book – it is not. Sorry Mr Lamb.

  • Patty says:

    I, too believe it is a disappointment in literature. I stopped reading midway to find this article because I was wondering why he wrote this. I still don’t know and I have not finished the book.

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