Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading is not Believing

When I look back on my adolescence, I can clearly identify two major historical events that shaped my generation: the 9/11 attacks and the Columbine High School shootings. Both were emotionally jarring and sudden. Both made us feel vulnerable and chaotic. Both changed our country. But since I grew up in Aurora, Colorado the Columbine shooting felt literally close to home. We were 30 minutes away from where it happened, when it happened. I was only in the 6th grade but the proximity made us feel like it could have been at our school. To this day, I find it hard to comprehend. That’s why I picked up this novel, The Hour I First Believed, I thought it was about the Columbine shootings. I knew it was fiction but I was interested to see what details would be included and what approach the author, Wally Lamb, would take. The problem is that this book wasn’t really about Columbine…I think that’s why I mostly hated it.

In this book, Columbine was just an interesting incident in the character’s lives. It’s almost as if the author googled “tragic national trauma event” and chose the one that would best sell his book. I wanted a book that did Columbine justice; a book that dealt with the event and the aftermath. Instead, it feels like Wally Lamb read enough headlines and police reports to do a decent job of hitting the major details of the shootings. Once the shooting was over and his characters had sufficient PTSD symptoms, Lamb moved them back to their family farm in Connecticut and continued with his book. He plugged in a distinctive, book selling tragedy and then moved on to the book that he had really set out to write. Lamb didn’t do Columbine justice. In fact, the first 283 pages and the last 440 pages felt like completely different books. The downside is you are stuck with the same unlikeable characters for both parts of the novel. Both parts of the book were hard to read but for different reasons. Part one was emotionally difficult because of the retold details of the Columbine tragedy. I will warn you right now that chapter eight will especially wreck you; it consists entirely of quotes and excerpts from conversations, journals, and videos that Klebold and Harris left behind. Chapter eight was literally heart breaking to read.

The second part of the book was difficult to read because I was bored and annoyed. I didn’t like a single character in the book and Lamb kept throwing in random issues, histories, and plot twists. So much so that it was overwhelming. It wasn’t enough to have your characters deal with the aftermath of Columbine? You (I’m speaking to Wally Lamb directly here) had to layer in abortion, alcoholism, narcotic addiction, vehicular homicide, hurricane Katrina, women’s prison rights, the history of German beer, suicide…and on and on? The reader doesn’t have a chance to process whatever newest crap Lamb has piled on before he’s on to another, loosely related, issue. It felt like the author has a lot of topics he wants to address, but rather than write more than one book he found ways to layer them into this book. It didn’t work for me. The second half of the novel was extremely reminiscent of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski , except I liked that book much more.

For me it comes down to Lamb’s essential catch 22: I picked up this book because it was advertised as being about Columbine and then hated it because it didn’t deliver. However, if the book wasn’t advertised as being about Columbine I never would have picked it up. Lamb knows how to sell his books. After this experience, though, I will be extremely reluctant to pick up another Wally Lamb novel.

"That's the funny thing about mazes: what's baffling on the ground begins to make sense when you can begin to rise above it, the better to understand your history and fix yourself."

~Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed

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