Forty-seven-year-old Caelum Quirk teaches high school English in Colorado. It's work he does well and finds satisfying - more satisfying than his marriage to Maureen, a relationship fraught with tension and distance. But that prosaic life, with its professional gratifications and almost commonplace unhappiness, will soon seem like an idyll compared with what follows. The year is 1999, and the high school is Columbine. The shootings take place while Caelum is in Connecticut at the bedside of a dying relative. While Caelum wasn't present, he is a victim: Maureen, who is a nurse at the high school, survives but is utterly traumatized. She suffers from vivid flashbacks and becomes hysterical when she hears sudden loud noises. And soon she has one more problem: an addiction to anxiety medications. Caelum quickly decides that the only way to save their marriage - and Maureen's sanity - is to leave Colorado.
They go back to Connecticut, where they settle in the farmhouse that's been in Caelum's family since the mid-19th century. But Caelum and Maureen soon discover that the past is inescapable, both their immediate past in Colorado and the history of Caelum's family, a mixed legacy of idealism and dishonesty, of courage and cruelty, that persists into the present.
"The Hour I First Believed" is an exploration of the ripple effects of tragedy, the utter limitlessness of an evil act, the impossibility of knowing where pain ends. Author Wally Lamb wants you to understand and feel the endless reach of violence, whether it's in the shattering of Maureen's life despite Caelum's attempts to save her, or the maimed body and mind of an Iraq War vet who becomes one of Caelum's students at a Connecticut community college.
However, if you read "The Hour I First Believed" even halfway through, what you will feel is a mix of compassion fatigue and ever-increasing annoyance. Caelum and Maureen suffer a series of disasters that in real life would be horrific but in fiction are simply unbelievable. And Lamb's efforts to draw into this novel every single newsworthy tragedy of our time soon become ludicrous. When Caelum takes in refugees from Hurricane Katrina as boarders at the farmhouse, I could only think, "What will he do next? Hire a survivor of the Rwandan genocide as a handyman?"
The true tragedy (if I may use the term) of "The Hour I First Believed" is that this could have been a wonderful book. Lamb is a fine writer: He creates characters you care about, relationships you want to see work out, people for whom you feel compassion even as they do horrible things. When I met Caelum and Maureen I was interested in their rocky marriage, their jobs, and their relationship with a dysfunctional teenager. I wanted to see how they weathered Columbine, put their lives and their marriage back together. But Lamb couldn't stop there: He had to drag us across the country to Connecticut so he could work in Caelum's high school friends, his alcoholic father, his ancestors' work in abolitionism and penal reform, and a couple of skeletons in the Quirk family closet. Well, OK, it's not really a closet, it's an attic crawl space. But there are actual skeletons.
The problem, I suspect, is that Lamb is so popular an author now that his publisher allows him to write whatever he wants with minimal editing. On that supposition, I would like to make a plea to the staff at Harper: edit Wally Lamb. Prune subplots. Weed out unnecessary characters. I realize that you're just editors and he's an Oprah author. But please, make the effort.
If Lamb is wise, he will accept your suggestions and thank you for them. I know his readers will.
Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at http://notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.