This very lengthy (almost 900 page) tome has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 10 years. I loved Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, but somehow, I never got around to cracking the daunting width of that formidable spine until I had some time on my hands as the holidays approached. Once I started, I could not put it down. The book lay in its place of honor at the kitchen table and when I couldn’t grab a few hours to sit down and eagerly devour the pages, at least I could sneak in a chapter or two while I ate breakfast or lunch.
I Know This Much is True follows Dominick Birdsey’s journey as he takes on the seemingly insurmountable burden caring for an identical twin brother who is plagued by paranoid schizophrenia. The book opens with Thomas Birdsey’s self-amputation of his own hand in an attempt to divert the attention of the world leaders from the impending “Desert Storm.” Thomas is convinced that he is the Lord’s “right hand man,” so to speak, and has been given a mission to bring world peace. His actions land him in a maximum-security forensic psychiatric facility called Hatch and his twin pushes everything in his life aside to try to get him released.
Lamb deftly steers the reader through the twists and turns of generations of the past. The story entwines the present setting of the 80s and 90s with the lives of the young Birdsey brothers: their timid, harelipped mother; their overbearing and abusive stepfather; the beginnings of Thomas’ illness; and Dominick’s trials and tribulations as he grows up being the “normal twin.” The third layer reveals itself in the memoirs of the Italian immigrant grandfather they had never met as Dominick uses a fine-toothed comb to seek out the answers that he has been searching for all his life. Who was his birth father? Why was he healthy when Thomas was ill? Why did he have to shoulder such heavy weight all of his life?
It is that last question that becomes the crux of the novel. Dominick Birdsey sees himself as a martyr. Someone who has either shelved or lost all that he holds dear. His life crumbles around him. His anger is palpable. In speaking with his therapist, he demonstrates his intense dislike of what he knows of his Grandfather through reading his memoirs. Describing him as “grandiose,” Dr. Patel asks him if perhaps the word, in any way, describes him. It is this pivotal moment when Dominick’s hard shell of bitterness begins to crack, “…earlier, you described yourself as fate’s test case. Likened your trials and tribulations to those of Job, who, of course, is legendary because of the way God tested his faith. So, I was just wondering….More tea?”
It seems I always find something of myself in every book that I read. In this case…well, let’s just say the truth hurts, doesn’t it? No one likes to realize that the burden they feel they have shouldered was actually one they set upon themselves. That they see themselves making huge sacrifices at the expense of their own lives for all of those around them. There seems to be no end to the giving and no beginning in the receiving. It is only with great reflection and much hard work that we realize, in the end, that we have actually been given great gifts along the way and have simply chosen to ignore them. Wally Lamb strikes that chord at the very center of your being and yanks you right into reality along with Dominick Birdsey. In confronting the pain of his past, he unlocks deep secrets within himself. Not just the answers he has long sought out, but answers to questions he never even knew he’d asked for.
Ten years was a long time to wait to read this book. Now I hear he has a new novel out and I won’t leave it sitting, dusty, upon my bookshelf…a treasure waiting to be revealed.