Television is a heavy presence in every Wally Lamb novel. At some point in each novel, a character will waste months, sometimes years, of his or her life in front of the tube. In his first two novels, "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True," as well as his new one, "The Hour I First Believed," Lamb tells lifelong stories of baby boomers, marking the eras based on what shows are on and where they are for iconic TV events such as the moon landing and President Kennedy's assassination.
In the 10 years since Lamb was last on the bestseller list, three of the most salient TV events in history have transpired: the shootings at Columbine High School, the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. In his new book (due in bookstores Tuesday), Lamb incorporates each of these events in an attempt to say something about suffering and transcendence. But although the book is the long, luxurious and enjoyable read that Lamb fans have come to love, "The Hour I First Believed" ultimately fails to tie these events together into a coherent statement on the contemporary American experience. Instead, Lamb has crafted another affecting, engrossing tome about complicated, interesting characters -- with what amounts to the narrative equivalent of a distracting CNN crawl running across the bottom of the page.
Protagonist Caelum Quirk is on his third wife, Maureen, and his last second chance. A teacher with some bruising family memories -- a mother who was emotionally distant, a father who was a drunken loser and a weird sensation that perhaps there are secrets that remain unrevealed -- Caelum is the kind of classic Lamb hero who is only half-living his own life. When we meet Caelum and Maureen, they have moved from New England to Littleton, Colo., in the wake of Maureen's affair and Caelum's violent reaction to it. As educators, they both get jobs at ... Columbine High School. When the horrible event goes down, Maureen is trapped in a closet, and the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder she suffers takes over the couple's life.
They move back east to occupy Caelum's family's property: a farm that abuts a women's prison inextricably linked to Caelum's family. But Maureen's downward spiral only accelerates as time passes, and another violent tragedy exacerbates Caelum's sense of hopelessness. Concurrent with Caelum and Maureen's PTSD nightmare, Caelum takes in Katrina refugees as boarders at the farm and, to pull in the Sept. 11 thread, becomes entranced with the tragedy of an Iraq war vet he teaches at the local community college.
What works in "The Hour I First Believed" is what worked in "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True": readability. Lamb writes in a conversational, leisurely way. Although his prose is informal and workmanlike, he's a master at stringing together words to keep stringing a reader along, and at painting scenes and slipping in the unnecessary but appreciated back stories of supporting characters. And Lamb reaches a moment of brilliance when Caelum begins to suffer a kind of "compassion fatigue" for what Maureen is going through. Lamb gently questions: Should a person who has experienced an unspeakable tragedy have a pass to destroy the lives of others around them? At what point does the partner of a PTSD survivor have the right to give up and save himself?
Lamb certainly had enough to chew on with Caelum and Maureen's post-Columbine struggles, but Lamb, an unrepentant maximalist, concurrently runs a genealogical study of the women in Caelum's family. The suggestion, of course, is that before Caelum can go forward, he needs to understand where he's come from. Lamb's decision to do this by including a fictional character's graduate thesis in its entirety jettisons the novel's focus and search for meaning. It is simply too much.
But "too much" is Lamb's signature, and that's not altogether a bad thing. Lamb's fans are readers who want to be lost for days or weeks in a single narrative and who will understand all his TV references. It's the large -- and largely intelligent -- mainstream of American readers. Lamb won't tell them anything they don't know about Columbine or Katrina or the effects of the war on terror, but he will warm their night tables and their book bags, and their hearts, for as long as they need him.
Cherie Parker blogs at thelitlife.com.