It's hard to think of a science that's been more beneficial to fiction writers in recent years than chaos theory; the basic ideas excuse a large number of literary indulgences. Caelum Quirk, the narrator of Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, gets a quick introduction to the concept from a fellow airline passenger while flying to see his stroke-ridden aunt. The passenger doesn't have much impact on the narrative, but his ideas stretch out across the book like increasingly overworked Scotch tape. Chaos is as good a way as any to describe Caelum's life, and he tries to find some meaning in the patterns that emerge from the disarray. How well he succeeds depends a lot on readers' patience for Lamb's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style.
Caelum and Maureen Quirk have had their share of hard times. When Hour opens, they've already come close to separating when Caelum learned Maureen was having an affair; only after some serious couples counseling did they regain an uneasy peace. That peace is broken by the shootings at Columbine High School; Caelum and Maureen work at the school, but while Caelum is away dealing with his aunt's illness, Maureen endures the violence firsthand. She survives, but the psychological toll damages her life and her marriage; as she struggles with her demons, Caelum works to support her and cope with the mysteries of his past.
Hour follows the same vein as Lamb's previous two novels: melodrama that justifies platitudes via seemingly endless ugliness. When it sticks to the melodrama, it's a fast read, though the dialogue is flat and some of Lamb's prose idiosyncrasies wear thin fast. (Two sentence fragments? Which end in question marks? Get used to those.) But Lamb's inventiveness and willingness to deal openly with uncomfortable topics give the narrative an engaging frankness. The problem is, Hour tends to wander off on tangents, especially in the latter half; those tangents are meant to create a larger world, but they're a distraction that makes the story formless and crowded. The easy answers of the last few pages don't help much, either. Just because a motto is too big to fit on a T-shirt doesn't make it any more profound.