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Posts Tagged ‘Wally Lamb

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.

hour i first believedOh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.

The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)

I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.

Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.

Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:

We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)

I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”

A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:

He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)

Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.

Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)

When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:

“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)

That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.

I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 1998, 901 pp.

This novel held me captive in its spell. Although I started it last week, for the last two days I have spent hours and hours just trying to complete it. It had such a firm grip on my mind that I could not think of anything else, and such a grip on my emotions that it set me in a melancholy mood. If, like me, you can easily be sucked in to an empathetic emotional state by a good novel, I will warn you ahead of time about this one. Because of its length and the rawness of the emotional story it tells, I Know This Much Is True can hold sway over you in a deeper and more prolonged way than most novels that explore human feelings and relationships.

I Know This Much Is True is both epic and intimate. Dominick Birdsey, the first-person narrator, journeys through his family’s multi-generational history of secrets, violence and madness in an attempt to save the life of his twin Thomas, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. Instead, he ends up unpacking his own anger, arrogance, defensiveness, loneliness, rejection and brokenness. He cannot heal his brother, but he can find healing for himself.

Dominick’s deep anger and despair made this a difficult novel to read. We read in Dominick’s voice, which means the reader is subjected to all of Dominick’s diatribes, self-loathing and futile frustration. This book is a study in anger, especially male anger—which is sanctioned and supported as a protective strategy for boys and men to make their way in the world. It details the ways that righteous anger protects Dominick, but also the way it holds him hostage and the way it damages him. He is justifiably angry about his abusive stepfather, his weak mother, his sick brother, his wife who left him, the death of his daughter and more. His anger is destroying him, even as it seems like the only thing that is keeping him together.

Lamb’s novel combs through the depths of a true, messy, imperfect, never-finished journey of emotional healing for Dominick. As a reader, I traveled to those ugly depths with him, which tapped into my own places of pain and anger. Lamb does not provide quick or easy moments of insight. Every ounce of healing Dominick finds is hard-earned and slow. (There’s a reason it takes 900 pages to tell this story.) In imitation of life, real healing is not easy.

Be prepared for that long and painful journey if you read this story. But also know that it’s worth it. This is no shallow happy ending. It is a true-to-life portrait of grace, redemption, forgiveness and healing—that which is broken slowly becoming whole. I was captive to the journey, but the novel’s end left me a sense of peace and hope.

Dwelling Places, by Vinita Hampton Wright, 2006, Harper Collins, 339 pp.

What a beautiful novel this is! As I combed the library shelves looking for something captivating but not tragic, interesting but entertaining, I pulled Dwelling Places because of the title. The story summary on the inside flap looked good, and the recommendation from Wally Lamb on the cover sold me. Quite by accident (or Spirit’s leading?), I discovered what is sure to be one of my favorite novels of the year.

Dwelling Places is the story of one Iowa family’s journey through heartache, loss and change. Mack’s family has farmed the same land for generations, but they lose the farm. In the same period of time, he loses his father and his brother under separate tragic circumstances. The family is forced to cope with their grief over these deaths, but also the loss of their way of life on the farm. The novel begins when Mack returns home from two weeks at a mental hospital after showing warning signs of suicide. The family struggles to welcome him home, gently handle his brokenness and continue to grapple with their own grief.

The novel follows four of the characters individually as they find their own way of dealing (or not dealing) with change and the accompanying grief—Mack, who dives deeper into his grief on the path to healing; Jodie, his wife, who begins to live two lives; Kenzie, his daughter, who turns to religion; and Rita, his mother, who survives on good works serving others. Mack and Jodie’s son, Young Taylor, also figures prominently, but we do not see through his eyes directly. The novel takes the family and each individual member of it to the brink of disaster as their broken seeking spirals out of control. But in the end, they are redeemed and reunited—slowly, imperfectly, forged together again as a family.

Faith and relationships with the church are at the heart of this story in many ways. Kenzie’s story is a common tale of adolescent collapse into cultish certainty, and her entire narrative is a faith journey. But faith is critical in the stories of the other characters as well. Each one must attempt to make peace with God about what has happened. Some find their way back to faith, some find faith as the way back to life, and some never return at all. They also relate to various churches in the story, and in the end a particular church service becomes a critical turning point. As one in ministry (and the kind of ministry or church that would do that kind of service), it is rare and gratifying to see stories like mine in print.

Wright’s writing is beautiful, the characters are real and endearing, the story is powerful and rings true. I am so grateful to have found this novel, and look forward to reading more from her.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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