Former Oprah Book Club golden boy Wally Lamb took his time writing his third novel, The Day I First Believed, a harrowing look at violence and the effect it has on those caught in its collateral snare. Lamb’s much anticipated follow-up to 1998’s I Know This Much is True is an engaging, terrifying, and at times, nauseating rollercoaster ride, even going as far as to include the feeling when the ride suddenly stops and you kind of lurch out toward the parking lot, dizzy, discombobulated, and trying not to hurl.
The first half of The Day I First Believed deals with the real world events of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. The novel’s protagonist, Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen both work at the school, although Caelum is called away by the imminent death of an aunt on the East Coast and Maureen is left to live through the shooting on her own. She does survive, but is seriously psychologically traumatized by the experience.
I remember when the shooting happened, and like everyone, I was shaken up, but I had already been out of high school for 15 years at the time and I think the immediacy of what happened was a little lost on me. Now, nearly 10 years later, I’ve found myself back on campus, this time as a teacher, and the impact of Lamb’s narration scared the living shit out of me.
Lamb uses snatches of diary entries, news reports, and transcripts of the taunting videos the two gunmen made before going on their rampage to good effect in the first half of the book, it’s in the second half when he resorts to a similar technique to introduce side plots dealing with the Quirk family history that the whole thing lurches to a halt.
Dana and I saw Lamb speak at Corte Madera’s Book Passage after I had finished the novel, but she hadn’t. I was hoping to glean some sort of insight into what Lamb was trying to do with the second half of his novel, without standing up and asking him straight up, “What the hell?” We both found Lamb to be very personable, engaging, and a great storyteller. He mentioned the idea of the labyrinth as the story’s overarching metaphor, and personally, I think he became a little lost in his own maze.
He mentioned how he inhabits his characters when he is writing, and if what I experienced just reading the first half of the novel is any indication of what that must have been like, perhaps he wandered a little off the reservation. I hope he makes it back.