I read Dave Cullen’s Columbine while in Edinburgh this year (yes, that’s what I do on vacation, hang around pubs with a book about some horribly depressing subject, after all the museums close), and came away both impressed with the thorough analysis of the massacre and deeply moved by Cullen’s sensitivity to the subject matter.
It was natural, then, that I would snatch up Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed after spotting it in a bookstore a few weeks later. In this fictional account that sashays back and forth through time, a couple’s lives are irredeemably changed by the Columbine massacre. And then a bunch of other horrible crap happens.
One is a nonfiction account that tries to lay the facts as bare as possible, while the other is a novel that deals with a great deal of issues, both artistic and psychological, but both writers grapple, profoundly and unsettlingly, with the seeming meaningless of the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Cullen looks at the way that psychopaths/sociopaths operate, while Lamb looks at the mythological undercurrents in our struggles with understanding evil.
Lamb has been accused of offering a sugary little pill for the problems we face in our modern lives – from the Columbine massacre to the Iraq war – but I view his novel differently. Yes, the narrator dictates quite a bit to the reader, but that’s kind of the point in this case, isn’t it? Gods, such as Poseidon or the Christian God, do quite a bit of dictating to us, but it’s what we do with their words that is really the difficult part. Lamb seems to be asking his reader – “hey you. What are you going to DO?” And I like that.
I’m tired of the idea that good writing has to be very open-ended in its conclusions. I think the Bible is gorgeously written in places, for example, and it’s not as if the authors were trying to be ambiguous. I think that in a way, Lamb’s forthright prose is much more challenging that all lot of the stuff that’s written to be as disengaged from the reader as possible. Being walloped over the head with Wally Lamb’s hope did not conjure up simple emotions in me. I think that most writers do obvious really poorly, but Lamb is not one of those writers. He’s fun when he’s obvious. And funny. Every once in a while, I want a writer to hold my hand, if they do it gallantly and beautifully.
Is “The Hour I First Believed” a reassuring book? I didn’t think so. I think that in many ways, it’s actually as reassuring as Dave Cullen’s stark, painful work of nonfiction. Lamb has purity of purpose, just like Cullen does when he tackles the enduring myths around the massacre, but it’s not as if he flinches away from the little and big horrors of life, or tells us that we will be able to flinch away ourselves when our time comes. Lamb wants to give his reader hope, but he warns us that hope itself comes at a price that may be a little too much to bear. Even then, it may not even work out for you in the end, as we witness when we examine the fates of some of the more peripheral (but no less interesting) characters.
Even Lamb’s mentions of such seemingly extraneous personages as Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla are part of a great American tapestry that the novel ambitiously weaves. The Civil War corresponds to the Iraq War. Mark Twain losing his daughter finds an echo in… Well, I don’t want to talk about the plot much. Let’s just say that while some people found the book’s vast scope to be wearying, I found it very rich. It’s like a novel inspired by Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes…” What could be more American than that?
I think anyone who’s doing any kind of thinking about the Columbine massacre ought to read “Columbine” and “The Hour I First Believed” back-to-back. At the very least, you’ll get a kick out of different, but equally engaging approaches to very similar and troubling questions. And ultimately, what’s chilling and – oddly enough- deeply satisfying about both of these works is the sense of inevitability they inspire.