I Know This Much Is True
At nearly a thousand pages, Wally Lamb’s new novel—his first since 1992’s Oprah-anointed She’s Come Undone—is so hefty a package that you expect a sprawling American epic. Instead, and despite all of its cultural and historical filigree, I Know This Much Is True turns out to be an intimate family drama.
Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the blue-collar town of Three Rivers, Conn., Dominick and Thomas Birdsey are manifestly unalike, even though they’re identical twins. While Thomas is sweet-natured, eager to please, and brittle as china, Dominick is calculating and manipulative, and resentful of his mother for so clearly favoring Thomas. Both Birdsey twins, who were born out of wedlock and whose father is a never-mentioned mystery figure, live in daily terror of their bullying, abusive stepfather, Ray.
When the boys reach their late teens in the tumultuous Vietnam War era, Thomas’ mild oddness gradually intensifies and turns frightening: He begins hearing voices in his head. Diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, he spends the next two-plus decades shuttling between mental institutions and group homes. Then, in the fall of 1990, as the Gulf War looms, Thomas Birdsey, now 40, strolls into a library one afternoon and chops off his right hand, declaring it a religious sacrifice intended to bring peace to the world. Judged a public menace, he’s committed to a maximum-security state hellhole for the dangerously insane.
Although Thomas is the sad and fascinating pivot of Lamb’s novel, the story belongs to Dominick, the “uncrazy twin—the guy who beat the biochemical rap.” Having spent most of his life as his brother’s grudging keeper, Dominick’s become, in middle age, a volatile, bitter man. Divorced from the woman he loves and living with a woman he doesn’t, struggling to survive as a housepainter after a nervous breakdown ended his career as a high school history teacher, Dominick is just barely holding on, an insomniac flirting dangerously with suicide. And when all of his efforts to free Thomas from the “forensic institute” are thwarted, he finally crashes and hits bottom.
At this point, Lamb begins a parallel narrative purportedly written in 1949 by the Birdseys’ Italian-immigrant grandfather and Dominick’s namesake. Filled with unconvincing bits of magic realism, “The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from Humble Beginnings” is meant, I suppose, to underscore the legitimate notion that patterns of individual and family behavior recur across generations, though all it ends up doing, really, is telling the preposterous tale of a bigoted blowhard and his astoundingly grim marriage. It doesn’t work, and while not a complete disaster, it badly stalls the momentum of the main story line.
I Know This Much Is True, like She’s Come Undone, is about squarely facing your demons—which in Dominick’s case means confronting pride, cruelty, selfishness, and guilt—and then changing your life. As in so many other popular novels, an eccentric yet crafty psychoanalyst inaugurates the healing process. But if Lamb’s strategy seems at first an unpromising cliche, it soon proves to be a brilliant decision. Dominick’s therapy sessions—his freewheeling memories in monologue—are vividly, transportingly dramatic. As we learn more about the twins’ tormented childhood, about their mother’s divided love and their stepfather’s wrath, the novel quite deliberately assumes a darkly fated dimension that transforms an unhappy working-class New England family into mythic world archetypes. You may wish that its structure were sleeker and its resolution less tidy, but you couldn’t ask for a more beguiling summer read. B+
I Know This Much Is True