I Know This Much Is True

I Know This Much Is True

4.6 692
by Wally Lamb

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PerfectBound e-book extra: Who Is Wally Lamb? The author addresses the National Endowment for the Arts.

With his stunning debut novel, She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb won the adulation of critics and readers with his mesmerizing tale of one woman's painful yet triumphant journey of self-discovery.See more details below


PerfectBound e-book extra: Who Is Wally Lamb? The author addresses the National Endowment for the Arts.

With his stunning debut novel, She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb won the adulation of critics and readers with his mesmerizing tale of one woman's painful yet triumphant journey of self-discovery.

Editorial Reviews

Denver Post
A can't-put-it-down novel.
Joyce Hackett

Within Wally Lamb's second book, I Know This Much Is True, there's a fine novel shouting to get out. Narrated by an identical twin, the book recounts Dominick Birdsey's hard journey to come to terms with the paranoid schizophrenia of his brother Thomas, and his own helplessness in the face of it. Through the twins' aggressive attempts to wrench themselves into polar opposites, Lamb movingly explores their fears of becoming each other, and of being unable to live without each other. But Dominick's sorrow at the loss of a brother he can't control or save drowns in a wash of resentment and melodrama. It's a novel of too little style and too much substance.

Lamb's strong first novel, She's Come Undone, depicted with comedic force the anger of an overweight woman who also survives myriad slings and arrows to find forgiveness and grace. Dolores Price's voice remained sympathetic because her repulsion toward her world was coupled with strong desire. But Dominick is steeped in resentment, and spews from above. His voice doesn't sparkle, not even with the kind of Beavis-and-Butt-head stupidity that would ironically connect him to the objects of his critique. As a result, there's little sense of scale. The SIDS death of his daughter, his divorce and subsequent breakdown, the violent guards in his brother's mental institution, his 23-year-old aerobics teacher girlfriend's affair with her bisexual stepuncle -- all seem to get the same withering treatment as his girlfriend's refusal to reclose the saltines wrapper.

Like many first-person novels, I Know This Much Is True suffers from the flaws of its narrator, who curates his own museum of misery. Eventually Dominick crashes his car, falls from a 30-foot ladder, gets into therapy and realizes the limits of his power. But by the time his therapist/anthropologist diagnoses Dominick as a typical Repressed-and-Angry American Male, and points out how he's numbing himself with his incessant cataloging of insults and injuries, Lamb has battered the reader with a plot out of Soap Opera Digest. That Thomas saws off his own hand to protest the Gulf War is only the beginning: besides countless episodes of their stepfather's gruesome abuses, Dominick recounts date-raping his future wife and participating in the racist frame-up of a co-worker (who turns out to have been exploited for years by a homosexual child pornographer).

The medley of issues surveyed in I Know This Much Is True includes an AIDS death, incest, suicide, amputation, Native American casino rights and mental illness policies; we even slog through transcripts of Thomas' paranoiac conspiracy theories. And Dominick's paternity search gives Lamb the occasion to saddle us -- incest again looming -- with the lengthy memoirs of his Sicilian grandfather, whose frigid wife and her evil-witch companion turn out to have been adolescent murderers.

Perhaps sweeping male anger is less fresh than its female equivalent. Or perhaps this 912-page tome simply needed an editor bold enough to persuade a talented novelist whose first book sold 3 million copies (thanks in large part to Oprah Winfrey's benediction) to trim the fat from the meat of its melodrama. I Know This Much Is True takes on too much to allow Dominick's losses the terrible specificity of universal tragedy. Nor does Lamb's vision ever expand into the kind of wider Swiftian satire that would have enabled him to take the entire world to task.

Karen Karbo
I Know This Much is True never grapples with anything less than life's biggest questions....a modern-day Dostoyevsky with a pop sensibility. In his view, it's not just the present that's the pits...it's also the ghosts of dysfunctional family members and your non-relationship with a mocking, sadistic God, whom you still turn to in times of trouble -- which is all the time.
The New York Times Book Review
Entertainment Weekly
Beguiling family drama...
Hartford Advocate
Contemporary fiction just doesn't get much better than this. . .It's the kind of book that makes you stop reading and shake your head, shocked by the insights you've encountered. In short, you'll be undone.
The Tennessean
Wally Lamb can lie down with the literary lions at will: he's that gifted. . .This novel does what good fiction should do -- it informs our hearts as well as our minds of the complexities involved in the 'simple' act of living a human life.
USA Today
Impossible to forget.
Associated Press
Every now and then a book comes along that sets new standards for writers and readers alike. Wally Lamb's latest novel is stunning -- and even that might be an understatement....This is a masterpiece.
Time Magazine
A triumph of simple beauty.
Oakland Press
The saga of the century. Best, most wonderful, most dramatic, most powerful. There are no superlatives impressive enough to describe this, another Lamb masterpiece.
People Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
Both a moving character study and a gripping story of family conflict are hidden somewhere inside the daunting bulk of this annoyingly slick second novel by Lamb. The character (and narrator) is Dominick Birdsey, a 40-year-old housepainter whose subdued life in his hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut, is disturbed in 1990 when his identical twin brother Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic whose condition is complicated by religious mania, commits a shocking act of self-mutilation. The story is that of the embattled Birdseys, as recalled in Dominick's elaborate memory-flashbacks and in the 'autobiography' (juxtaposed against the primary narrative) of the twins' maternal grandfather, Italian immigrant (and tyrannical patriarch) Domenico Tempesta. But Lamb combines these promising materials with overattenuated accounts of Dominick's crippled past (the torments inflicted on him and Thomas by an abusive stepfather, a luckless marriage, the crib death of his infant daughter), and with a heavy emphasis on the long-concealed identity of the twins' real father—a mystery eventually solved, not, as Dominick and we expect, in Domenico's self-aggrandizing story, but by a most surprising confession. This novel is derivative (of both Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides and the film Dominick and Eugene), it pushes all the appropriate topical buttons (child abuse, AIDS, New Age psychobabble, Native American dignity, and others), and it works a little too hard at wringing tears. But it's by no means negligible. Lamb writes crisp, tender-tough dialogue, and his portrayal of the decent, conflicted Dominick (who is forced, and blessed, to acknowledge that 'We were all, in a way, each other')is convincing. The pathetic, destroyed figure of Thomas is, by virtue of its very opacity, both haunting and troubling.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
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6.74(w) x 4.18(h) x 1.42(d)

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On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable. Mrs. Theresa Fenneck, the children's librarian, was officially in charge that day because the head librarian was at an all-day meeting in Hartford. She approached my brother and told him he'd have to keep his voice down or else leave the library. She could hear him all the way up at the front desk. There were other patrons to consider. If he wanted to pray, she told him, he should go to a church, not the library.
Thomas and I had spent several hours together the day before. Our Sunday afternoon ritual dictated that I sign him out of the state hospital's Settle Building, treat him to lunch, visit our stepfather or take him for a drive, and then return him to the hospital before suppertime. At a back booth at Friendly's, I'd sat across from my brother, breathing in his secondary smoke and leafing for the umpteenth time through his scrapbook of clippings on the Persian Gulf crisis. He'd been collecting them since August as evidence that Armageddon was at hand—that the final battle between good and evil was about to be triggered. "America's been living on borrowed time all these years, Dominick," he told me. "Playing the world's whore, wallowing in our greed. Now we're going to pay the price."
He was oblivious of my drumming fingers on the tabletop. "Not to change the subject," I said, "but how's the coffee business?" Ever since eight milligrams of Haldol per day had quieted Thomas's voices, he hadmanaged a small morning concession in the patients' lounge—coffee and cigarettes and newspapers dispensed from a metal cart more rickety than his emotional state. Like so many of the patients there, he indulged in caffeine and nicotine, but it was the newspapers that had become Thomas's most potent addiction.
"How can we kill people for the sake of cheap oil? How can we justify that?" His hands flapped as he talked; his palms were grimy from newsprint ink. Those dirty hands should have warned me—should have tipped me off. "How are we going to prevent God's vengeance if we have that little respect for human life?"
Our waitress approached—a high school kid wearing two buttons: "Hi, I'm Kristin" and "Patience, please. I'm a trainee." She asked us if we wanted to start out with some cheese sticks or a bowl of soup.
"You can't worship both God and money, Kristin," Thomas told her. "America's going to vomit up its own blood."

About a month later—after President Bush had declared that "a line has been drawn in the sand" and conflict might be inevitable—Mrs. Fenneck showed up at my front door. She had sought me out—had researched where I lived via the city directory, then ridden out of the blue to Joy's and my condo and rung the bell. She pointed to her husband, parked at the curb and waiting for her in their blue Dodge Shadow. She identified herself as the librarian who'd called 911.
"Your brother was always neat and clean," she told me. "You can't say that about all of them. But you have to be firm with these people. All day long, day in, day out, the state hospital van just drops them downtown and leaves them. They have nowhere to go, nothing to do. The stores don't want them—business is bad enough, for pity's sake. So they come to the library and sit." Her pale green eyes jerked repeatedly away from my face as she spoke. Thomas and I are identical twins, not fraternal—one fertilized egg that split in half and went off in two directions. Mrs. Fenneck couldn't look at me because she was looking at Thomas.
It was cold, I remember, and I invited her into the foyer, no further. For two weeks I'd been channel-flipping through the Desert Shield updates, swallowing back the anger and guilt my brother's act had left me with, and hanging up in the ears of reporters and TV types—all those bloodsuckers trying to book and bag next week's freak show. I didn't offer to take Mrs. Fenneck's coat. I stood there, arms crossed, fists tucked into my armpits. Whatever this was, I needed it to be over.
She said she wanted me to understand what librarians put up with these days. Once upon a time it had been a pleasant job—she liked people, after all. But now libraries were at the mercy of every derelict and homeless person in the area. People who cared nothing about books or information. People who only wanted to sit and vegetate or run to the toilet every five minutes. And now with AIDS and drugs and such. The other day they'd found a dirty syringe jammed behind the paper towel dispenser in the men's restroom. In her opinion, the whole country was like a chest of drawers that had been pulled out and dumped onto the floor.
I'd answered the door barefoot. My feet were cold. "What do you want?" I asked her. "Why did you come here?"
She'd come, she said, because she hadn't had any appetite or a decent night's sleep since my brother did it. Not that she was responsible, she pointed out. Clearly, Thomas had planned the whole thing in advance and would have done it whether she'd said anything to him or not. A dozen people or more had told her they'd seen him walking around town, muttering about the war with that one fist of his up in the air, as if it was stuck in that position. She'd noticed it herself, it always looked so curious. "He'd come inside and sit all afternoon in the periodical section, arguing with the newspapers," she said. "Then, after a while, he'd quiet down. Just stare out the window and sigh, with his arm bent at the elbow, his hand making that fist. But who'd have taken it for a sign? Who in their right mind would have put two and two together and guessed he was planning to do that?"
No one, I said. None of us had.

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What People are saying about this

Susan Larson
More than any pop psychology tome, this novel shows us what has happened to American men in the last half-century--and points the way toward a future. Wally Lamb is a master at creating such stories, scary in their human reality. But more than simply mirroring our fears, they brim with joy and sadness, consolation and hope. Always hope.
Terese Karmel
The high quality of the writing and the sensitivity with which the novel examines important subjects-family relationships, guilt, redemption, how we treat those who are different-are maintained throughout its 900 pages. Most of all, I was struck with its honesty in confronting the demons we all live with and its insistence that to achieve some small, if uneasy peace in a chaotic world, we must come to terms with those demons and enlarge our definitions of understanding of those who can't.
Liesel Litzenburger
This is an extremely long and complicated trip, and it is both a risk and a testament to Lamb's skill as a storyteller that, even at this great length and degree of complexity, the novel never lags. And although its length may scare some readers away, let's just call it a four-black-diamond plot; if you're the type who doesn't mind a long dangerous drop, have at it. It is, in the end, an unflinching look at a family and a history and the way in which those two words are one and the same.

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