Mothers used to warn kids overloading their plates at a buffet: "Don't take more than you can eat, your eyes are bigger than your stomach."
Everything looks good, the possibilities are endless, but we all have limits. Novelists do too.
Bestselling author (She's Come Undone) and Oprah favorite Wally Lamb tries to put the world on his plate, with limited success. To the main course, a failing marriage, he has added 9/11, Columbine, abuses within the women's prison system, the problems of a closeted honor student, prescription drug addiction and the tribulations of Katrina victims, as well as swatches of Connecticut history, spiced by lashings of the narrator's neo-Gothic personal history and . . . and . . .
It's as though the last novel in the world was leaving port, and he had to load everything on it and jump aboard, or die in the attempt.
The result is a great, big, ambitious, baggy, exhausting and not altogether successful novel with serious focus problems. There's only one person to watch, really, and there are so many narrative threads that it's hard to find, let alone follow, the through-line.
Schoolteacher Caelum Quirk's first-person account is intercut with scenes from his past, Quirk ancestors' letters and excerpts from their journals, and newspaper clippings from several decades. There are also verbatim screeds written by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the apparently "normal" teenagers who brought explosives and assault weapons into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
But where to start? Let's start with that failing marriage, the narrator's third, and we will, of course, hear detailed accounts of his first two. Fleeing the embarrassment of his third wife's adultery (he socked the guy and lost his job), Caelum and Maureen Quirk have moved to Colorado, where her awful parents live — backstory, of course. The Quirks are seeing a marriage counselor. They're trying, but the sex is infrequent and dreadful.
Life is complicated by Caelum's former student Velvet, a Goth wild child who's bonded with Maureen, and again, there's backstory attached. Everybody in the book has one, and this is a densely populated novel.
Then Caelum's called home to the family farm to attend his dying lesbian aunt, who followed her foremothers as an attendant at a Connecticut correctional institution for women.
At home in Connecticut, he finds his high school best buddy soldiering on at his parents' bakery. The resulting trip down memory lane absorbs and troubles Caelum, but nothing he tells us prepares us for what he discovers down the line.
Meanwhile, back at Columbine High, where both the Quirks are employed, things seem normal until, apparently out of nowhere, Harris and Klebold descend on the school and the massacre changes American high schools forever.
Maureen, Caelum finds out later, spent hours crouched in a supply cabinet, praying for her life while Harris and Klebold destroyed her world. In the wake of the disaster, she comes apart, and it is Caelum's job to repair her. She exhibits classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and if Lamb draws parallels to the survivors of 9/11 and problems confronting returning war veterans, it's appropriate, if distracting.
The novel is laden with similar distractions. It's a pity, as Lamb draws real, likeable characters and brings them to life in swift, authentic dialogue, but he has attached so many side dishes and outside events that the narrator's big discovery — a bit of second-hand information artificially arrived at — seems to come out of left field. It diffuses the effect of what should be a genuine American tragedy.
Kit Reed's new novel, "Enclave," is due in February.