Review: Wally Lamb leaves Arts Café stunned

Most folks fluent in books and theater are familiar with Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight." It's a one-man presentation designed to present the iconic Twain in not just his superior literary guise but also touch on all the many sparkling aspects of his character and personality.

On Friday evening, an SRO audience in the Mystic Arts Center witnessed a similarly remarkable production. Call it Wally Lamb's "Wally Lamb Tonight."

Indeed, for an hour in the final fall program of The Arts Café Mystic, Lamb, the author of a mega-bestselling trio of eminently devourable literary novels as well as a whimsical piece of Christmas nostalgia, gave a reading that was, well, far more than just a recitation of his work. In prefatory remarks, the folksy and hilarious Lamb said that, in trying to decide what to do for the Café, he would tap into his inner gameshow host and mix in the idea of a touring rock band's greatest hits set list.

Dressed in a T-shirt and a brown tweed sportcoat, and topped with a worn Rheingold beer cap, the author stood behind the microphone and started off by thanking The Arts Café director Christie Max Williams for the booking.

"I've been on the road a number of years," Lamb said, "but some of my fondest memories are of this café and this audience."

He thanked poet Owen Hughes and fortepianist Sylvia Berry for their very fine support sets. "I'm bowled over by Owen and Sylvia's performances," Lamb said. "So much for the high culture."

He also acknowledged a number of friends in the crowd, including a first girlfriend, an old teaching colleague, a husband/wife team of dairy farmers he's known for years and, in full disclosure, a Day reporter with whom Lamb shares a fondness for rock 'n' roll.

To warm up, Lamb asked for volunteers who felt familiar with his canon - "She's Come Undone," "The Hour I First Believed," "I Know This Much is True," "Wishin' and Hopin'" - and two audience members, representing the youngest of three generations in the house, came up. Lamb read short excerpts from his books to see if they could correctly identify the source. Both performed well and were rewarded with prize options, including a "booby prize" edition of a Norwich magazine with Lamb on the cover - and which, the writer promised, "includes a foldout."

Which brought Lamb to the main portion of the evening. He elected to read from his upcoming novel, called "We Are Water." He shared a few autobiographical anecdotes that contributed to the developing fabric of the story, then read a chapter in the voice of Kent, a relatively minor character who sets a major plot component in action.

It was a stunning section of the book - a bit of narrative sorcery that went through three distinct gear-shifts in tone. At the outset, the teenage Kent's account of living with his blue collar aunt and uncle and their three children is a melancholy but touchingly funny sort of coming-of-age recollection.

When a dam down the street breaks and floods, Kent's voice shifts desperately into stark terror as he and his Uncle Chick attempt to save family members from raging flood waters.

A final segue shows a new, more mature Kent who seems to have emerged from the disaster as the only one who can effectively help the family survivors heal - at which time, like a spider crawling out of a wedding cake, Lamb quietly delivered a plot-twist gut-punch so devastating that it seemed the work of a dark magician. Stunningly great stuff.

"We Are Water" hits bookstores in November 2013. It wouldn't be a surprise if folks from Friday's reading were already standing in line.


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