The Man Behind the Woman

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

AS A WOMAN'S ODYSSEY, SHE'S COME Undone pretty much pushes every button in the juicy genre of women's fiction. Its indomitable hero, Dolores Price, is abused and abandoned by her father and raped at 13; endures bingeing and obesity, abortion and infidelity and a lesbian fling; is driven to madness and a suicide attempt before, at long last, finding spiritual renewal.

The good news? Dolores's trials are told in a funny, touching and deliciously off-beat voice so credible that Glamour magazine declared the book "utterly convincing on the secret eating habits and hidden hurts of adolescent girls." The New York Times book review declared Undone "ambitious, often stirring and hilarious." A critic for The Midwest Book Review hailed Dolores's creator as one of a select group of "women authors who are reshaping the literature of the '80s and '90s."

Reshaping, indeed. The author, it turns out, is Wally Lamb, a 41-year-old father of two, a 6', 175-lb. runner and high school English teacher in Norwich, Conn. So how did he manage to fashion this feisty, female heavyweight Holden Caulfield for the '90s? Lamb admits writing as Dolores was daunting, but he had his wife, Chris, his two older sisters and female students and friends provide reality checks along the way. And he says there are "bits and scraps" of his life throughout the book, including his youth as a "fat, unathletic, inactive kid" who tipped the scales at 190 lbs. Beyond that, says Lamb, "Dolores is a construction—smoke and mirrors."

Writing Undone nearly undid Lamb, drawing him into a lightless, eight-year tunnel of text. He entered it when he heard Dolores's voice in the shower after a sunrise run. "The shower's a creative place for me," says Lamb, whose spare, sardonic take on life infuses every page. "The voice was masking some pain. The interconnections between pain and humor interested me."

Though Lamb thought he had hooked a mere short story, his character had far more to tell him. "I wasn't like the master puppeteer, pulling all of Dolores's strings," he says. "She just spun off and became who she was supposed to be. I started with no outline and no idea how long it would take."

He also had no agent and no contract. Lamb's teaching schedule at his alma mater, the progressive, privately funded high school Norwich Free Academy, forced him to write mostly on weekends and in summer. He won a $5,000 Connecticut state grant in 1987 to take a semester off and write but was so afraid of losing touch with his students that he created the academy's writing center to keep a foot in the door.

Still he found the time to write short stories as well—one of which was published in The Missouri Review and won a Pushcart Prize. It caught the eye of a California agent, who asked Lamb to show her his work in progress, then passed it on to Pocket Books editor Judith Regan. "I never put it down," says Regan, who was recuperating from the C-section birth of her daughter. "It was an editor's dream—a rare gem that came to me polished."

Lamb got a hefty advance, in excess of $150,000, and was assured a chance to work on any screen adaptation. But for a fellow who gets to Manhattan maybe twice a year from Willimantic in northeast Connecticut, going Hollywood isn't a big worry. Lamb's father, a millworker who later worked at a utility company, and his mother, who was employed at a nearby printing firm, still live in the house they bought the year Walter was born. He recalls a "pretty solitary childhood" as an imaginative tale-spinner and compulsive drawer; his mother would bind his work into books on her sewing machine.

Walter played mostly with his sisters and girl cousins—which perhaps provided some of the distaff grist for Undone. "One game was called Kingy Boy. I was a sultan and they were dancing girls," he says. "I don't know what we were doing, but at the end of the game, my sisters would always say, 'Don't tell Mom.' " In high school, Lamb lost his baby fat, sprouted up six inches and flourished into a popular, wisecracking teenager. He studied education at the University of Connecticut before joining the Norwich Free Academy faculty in 1972.

He was friends with Chris Grabarek at the academy, and she invited him to her wedding in 1970. They were out of touch for five years, then ran into each other at another wedding. Chris was recently separated and a friend of the groom's; Walter, now known as Wally, was a friend of the bride's. Lamb recalls the night Chris cooked him London broil. "The meat had dog fur on it, but she just washed it off, and we ate it," he says. "I knew I was in love." The next nuptials they attended were their own, three years later in 1978.

The Lambs live in the same three-story Victorian house they bought the week they married. Chris teaches second grade in Chaplin, Conn. Wally clearly loves his writing center—where his off-beat vision of life has taken hold. "One kid wrote a story about going into Burger King and picking up Picasso's glasses, which Picasso has left behind," Wally says, delighted. "He puts them on and sees a Cubist world."

Wally's own world remains plain and simple. He savors the grounding offered by Chris, his two sons, Jared, 11, and Justin, 7, and his tight-knit community of school and area friends. At a recent book signing in Norwich, hundreds of neighbors and students queued for two hours and cheered their local hero. The money from his advance allowed Lamb to buy the family's first car with air-conditioning—a Honda—and take a year's leave from school.

Though he's reluctant as always to part from his students, he's eager to write full-time now that he's got a scant, two-year deadline for his next novel—about an Italian family—for which he got an even bigger advance. "I'm at the base of a mountain now, figuring out how to scale it." he says. "I've always been pretty hesitant. This'll be like full steam ahead."

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