Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Hour I First Believed

Review of "The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb.

Caelum Quirk is not a guy you would like to spend an evening with. Although a high school teacher in English literature, he’s as likely to be found slumped in front of his TV set with a six-pack, drunkenly watching the sports channel. A jealous husband prone to fits of violence, he’s already on his third wife. Sarcastic, low in empathy and impulsive, he’s not much given to introspection: not, you would say, a guy with a rich inner life.

Quirk and his nurse wife Maureen work at Columbine High School. The infamous shootings traumatise Maureen, who hid from the killers in a cupboard in the Library. The couple move back to the Quirk ancestral farm in Connecticut where Quirk’s troubles continue to accumulate. Around midway in this 700 page novel I figured Caelum for a Job-like figure and feared beyond measure that his redemption would come in the final pages as he dropped his habitual cynicism and finally found religion.

Thankfully, Wally Lamb is too sophisticated for such an obvious conclusion. Although the reader is regularly shocked with unexpected, and usually tragic events, Caelum’s journey is altogether more complex. In Connecticut, the threads of his tangled genealogy are gradually revealed. Lamb is brilliant at characterisation and scene, and we get almost a second novel set around the civil war, re-illuminating timeless issues of race, the subjugation of women and the general meanness and arrogance of men of power. Caelum begins to understand where he came from, and who he is.

This is a great, sweeping story where we care about the characters. I was particularly impressed by the way Lamb’s first-person narrative takes us into the head of Caelum Quirk – so that’s what it would be like to be a person like him.

When an author has worked for nine years on a massive novel, he deserves to be taken seriously. This novel professes to be about great themes: hatred, abandonment, redemption and love. Wally Lamb has written a great and wonderful book, but not quite a masterpiece. Why? Because his solutions in the end are too trite. Not quite classic American sentimentalism, but one ought to be more profound than spinning that sub-religious myth that ‘love in the end conquers hatred’ and that redemption is thereby open to all.