This is one beast of a book that this mere mortal can probably not do justice in a few paragraphs but I will try. Apparently, this is Wally Lamb's first book for a decade (respect to him for resisting the urge to churn out mediocre offerings in the meantime) and to be honest it will probably be another ten years before I'm ready for another, but I say this in a good way. Before I start, I would like to say I have read it all.
It is essentially a story of several years in one man's (Caelum Quirk, English teacher) life that later on in the book is interspersed with the lives of his ancestors, going back to the American Civil War. These stories are all linked in their cause and effect an idea first discussed on an airplane trip with a Chaos theorist and one that is revisited often :
Quirk's wife turns to taking (self-administered and stolen) prescribed drugs to help her over the trauma of her involvement of the Columbine massacre. The effect is a fatal accident that sees her incarcerated in the prison that his great grandmother campaigned for many years ago (to prevent women sharing prisons with men). Had his wife, Maureen, not been in prison, Caelum would not have found himself working nights at the bakery and met the Micks, themselves refugees of hurricane Katrina. He rented them part of his farm, and it was Janis Mick who delved into the cupboard loads of letters and files as research for her degree. She unearthed the history of Caelum's family and some uncomfortable personal discoveries for him. His grandmother's old employee later came to see him and literally dug up horrific remains from the past.
I have never read a book like this before, it is truly great in my opinion. Other reviewers have said they found the extracts from the past dull and I did wander "What the ...?" when the first chapter came in out of left-field (as they say over there) but it made more and more sense as the story developed and in my opinion added greatly to the experience. A fictional dinner with Mark Twain and some of Quirk ancestors is a rare moment of self-indulgent levity and a joy to read. Lamb skilfully uses these chapters to draw comparisons between the past and present and we learn nothing much has changed.
It is told in the first person, (Caelum) and can be disjointed, perhaps rambling (like my review...it's catching) and powder dry in parts but overall it is an amazing read unlike any other book I have read. Caelum himself, reminds me in parts of John Updike's Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom (from the excellent Rabbit series) with a touch of Steinbeck's Tom Joad (Grapes of Wrath) thrown in for good measure. Small town man in a dysfunctional marriage struggling against just about anything, with ill humour, multiple grudges and a mountainous chip on each shoulder. He is a difficult character to like, but Lamb draws you into his world and you need to find out more. Men of a certain age will relate to a lot of him and probably get the most out of this book.
It's true in most walks of life that the more you put in, the more you will get out. This book requires a lot of staying power but the rewards are well worth it. Great read, though not for everyone.