Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back...with a vengeance!

I suppose the title of this post could apply to both myself (who cleared her $27 debt to the library and is now in good standing again) and to the author of the book I just finished last night.

You all remember Wally Lamb. It's been about 15 years since everyone on the planet was carting around his debut, She's Come Undone, a sad, eloquent novel about a woman's lifelong struggle to deal with a childhood rape, parents' divorce and mother's death and lead a healthy, normal life. His follow-up, This Much I know Is True, came out a year or two later, and was written from the point of view of a man whose twin brother is schizophrenic.

Then, for a long time, nothing. Until now. The Hour I First Believed weighs in at 700+ pages, and has so much in it that it's difficult to even talk about, or summarize. The book spans ten years of real time, with flashbacks ranging as far back as the Civil War. It takes as its themes addiction, mental illness, recovery from trauma, sexual abuse, and the treatment of female prisoners. Like I said, there's a lot in this book.

The story begins with Caelum and Maureen Quirk. The marriage is a do-over for both parties, not only in the sense that they've been married to other people before, but that they have been married to each other before. Maureen is a school nurse and reformed adultress. Caelum is a school teacher, and my initial impression of him was that he was also an asshole. Unpleasant to his wife, unpleasant to the more initially intruguing Velvet Hoon (a student with a troubled past), even not terribly pleasant or responsive to his Aunt Lolly, who basically raised him. My views softened a bit over the course of the book, but I wasn't that far off about him. Caelum and Maureen work together, at an upper-middle-class high school in Colorado, called Columbine.

Familiar events set the plot in motion. On the day of the shootings, Caelum was out of town because his Aunt Lolly had just died. Maureen was in the library, having taken Velvet there to help her re-enroll in high school. Maureen hid in a cabinet, heard the whole thing, and was never the same again. The rest of the book focuses on how she, Caelum and Velvet each worked on putting their lives and relationships back together after that day.

It's hard to say too much about the plot. It encompasses long-past events (a subplot with Caelum's grandmother, a women's prison reformer, that I'm ashamed to say I never really clocked) and current ones. Everything that's happened in the past ten years since Columbine touch Caelum's life in some way: Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, September 11th. The book was wonderful. Lamb really knows how to draw readers in: even though I thought Caelum was an asshole, he was at least an INTERESTING asshole, surrounded by interesting people, and that gave the book momentum. He clearly put a great deal of work into the tale, and there is some beautiful plot symmetry. The post-traumatic stress of one of his Iraqi vet students, for example, echoed in his great-grandmother's journal from her stint as a Civil War nurse, and also in his father's alcoholism. Velvet Hoon as a teen writing a short story about her grandfather's stone-cutting work in the cemetery where she used to give blow jobs for cash, then finding peace and happiness working for a sculptor as a young adult.

But it's a lot to wrap one's head around. There was a subplot with some long-buried mild sexual abuse of Caelum that never really developed, and that I could have done without. The ending of the book, as well, hits like a freight train and almost seemed a bit of a cop-out. And I didn't really care for the fact that he gave characters from his previous novels walk-on roles in this one. It seemed a bit unneccesary, too. But overall, it was an excellent, if somber, read.