Nothing comes easily to Caelum Quirk, the narrator and protagonist of this 752-page novel. He’s 47, teaching English at a high school in Colorado where his third wife, Maureen, is a part-time nurse. In the evenings he drinks, shares lists of the greatest rock songs of all time with like-minded guys via the Internet, and ignores his wife’s signals that she needs him, despite the promises he made during couples counseling years ago. The only family he has left, an Aunt Lolly in Connecticut, phones him every Sunday night to vent about the state of the world in general and the prison down the road in particular --- a women’s prison founded by Caelum’s good-intentioned and compassionate great-grandmother, now run by the state, which has drained all the dignity right out of it.
When Lolly suffers a stroke, Caelum flies back to the family home in Connecticut. And the next day at the high school where he teaches, which is named Columbine, his wife spends hours cowering in a cupboard in the library while Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris kill 13 of their fellow students and then themselves.
After the massacre, Maureen suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and gets hooked on downers. Caelum becomes more and more frustrated, both trying to help her and trying to understand how a monstrosity like Columbine could happen. “There is no mysterious Master Planner, no one up there who can see the big picture --- the order in the disorder. Religion’s just a well-oiled profit-driven denial of the randomness of it all.” He knew the boys and keeps second-guessing himself: What if he had called them on some of their strange remarks, or taken more notice of a disturbing essay?
Many pages of this novel are consumed by journal entries of these real-life boys and by a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the actual rampage, so if you’re interested in studying that gruesome history, this is a good resource. Soon Lolly dies from her stroke, and the couple decides to move back to Connecticut to make a fresh start away from all the triggers that plague Maureen, who is sullen, listless, defensive and strung out.
But back in the family farmhouse, Caelum confronts the holes in his own personal narrative. Maureen makes enough progress to go back to work at a nursing home, but is not quite well enough to resist sneaking pills from the dispensary. Thus begins a second, smaller tragedy, another stage for the whole chaos theory to be resurrected, through Caelum’s self-discovery and eventual embrace of sobriety and redemption. Much of the self-discovery comes through old family letters and journals retrieved and catalogued by the female half of a couple of Katrina victims who find their way north, who just happens to be kind of hot and working on her degree in Women’s Studies. (Nearly 50 pages of her thesis, featuring Caelum’s forebears, are included in this novel, which is nothing if not thorough.) By that time, Maureen is conveniently in the prison started by Caelum’s great-grandmother, so Caelum soon has another thing to beat himself up about: making this young lady’s husband a cuckold.
I was impressed by Wally Lamb’s earlier work, SHE’S COME UNDONE, and this novel is also competently written and topical. Things perked up for me in chapter four, written in the very credible and interesting voice of the boy Caelum. I wanted to hear more of that voice, but never did.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 22, 2011
The Hour I First Believed