Too often, we skip past the dedication at the beginning of a book. But if you’re a devotee of book dedications, you know that line or two of text, floating in the first few pages, can be like a little window into an author’s soul. The text feels a little more raw, a little less prepackaged and […]
"Thoughtful . . . heart-wrenching . . . . An exercise in soul-baring storytelling—with the soul belonging to 20th-century America itself. It's hard to read and to stop reading, and impossible to forget." — USA Today
Dominick Birdsey, a forty-year-old housepainter living in Three Rivers, Connecticut, finds his subdued life greatly disturbed when his identical twin brother Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, commits a shocking act of self-mutilation. Dominick is forced to care for his brother as well as confront dark secrets and pain he has buried deep within himself—a journey of the soul that takes him beyond his blue-collar New England town to Sicily’s Mount Etna, the birthplace of his grandfather and namesake. Coming to terms with his life and lineage, Dominick struggles to find forgiveness and finally rebuild himself beyond the haunted shadow of his troubled twin.
I Know This Much Is True is a masterfully told story of alienation and connection, power and abuse, devastation and renewal—an unforgettable masterpiece.
About the Author
Date of Birth:October 17, 1950
Place of Birth:Norwich, Connecticut
Education:B.A. in Education, University of Connecticut, 1972; M.A. in Education, 1977; M.F.A. in Writing, Vermont College, 1984
Read an Excerpt
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 handthat 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' loungecoffee 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 meshould have tipped me off. "How are we going to prevent God's vengeance if we have that little respect for human life?"
Our waitress approacheda 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 laterafter President Bush had declared that "a line has been drawn in the sand" and conflict might be inevitableMrs. Fenneck showed up at my front door. She had sought me outhad 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 thembusiness 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 fraternalone 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 typesall 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 jobshe 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.
What People are Saying About This
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.
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
A Note From the Author
"Reading a novel is a highly personal experience and I think different readers will take different things from it. As for me, the experience of writing the book has reinforced for me the truths that Dominick had to learn: that love grows from forgiveness, that "mongrels" make good dogs, and that the roundness of life's design may be a sign that there is a presence beyond ourselves."
Topics for Discussion
As an award-winning teacher of writing, Wally Lamb has been honored for his exceptional ability to communicate the power and majesty of the written word to his students. Hoping to inspire thoughtful discourse on his own novel, Wally has graciously supplied these discussion questions.
An Interview with Wally Lamb
Q: Anyone who reads She's Come Undone comments that it's amazing that a man could write so seamlessly about what goes on in a woman's head and heart. Now you write about identical twin brothers in an equally convincing way. How do you know so much about human nature?
A: When I was a kid, I was surrounded by girls: older sisters, older girl cousins just down the street -- an entire "girl gang" neighborhood, except for an older boy named Vito who threw rocks. Each year I would wish for a baby brother. It never happened. So fairly early on, I became an observer of people more than a group participant. And I drew. My Uncle Dom was a printer and kept me well-supplied with scrap paper of all shapes, sizes, and colors from the shop where he worked. I probably spent half of my childhood with pencils and Crayolas in my hand. What I liked to draw, mostly, was people in conflict: A lion would escape his cage at the circus and panic would ensue; a tidal wave would roll ominously toward an unsuspecting crowd at the beach. Human behavior in the midst of hardship caught my attention very early on, and my first stories were all pictures, no words.
However far fiction writers stray from their own lives and experiences -- and I stray pretty far from mine -- I think, ultimately, that we may be writing what we need to write in some way, albeit unconsciously. When I was a kid, like Dolores Price in She's Come Undone, I needed to belong. And perhaps I Know This Much Is True addresses my desire for a brother. But as my early drawings warned me, where humans go, lions and tidal waves follow.
Q: Is this book also a love story? How?
A: As far as I can figure, this book, reduced to its lowest common denominator, is only a love story. Love stories are probably all I've ever been able to write or want to write. To me, it's the most breathtakingly ironic things about living: the fact that we are all -- identical twins included -- alone. Singular. And yet what we seek -- what saves us -- is our connection to others. Love comes in far more shapes and sizes than what the family-values crowd condones, of course. In the story, Pasquale Tempesta loves his monkeys, and the monkeys seem to love him back. Pasquale's brother Domenico is doomed not by a monsignor's curse, but because he cannot love.
Q: What is the greatest lesson we can learn from I Know This Much Is True?
A: Reading a novel is a highly personal experience, and I think different readers will take different things from it. As for me, the experience of writing the book has reinforced for me the truths that Dominick had to learn: that love grows from forgiveness, that "mongrels" make good dogs, and that the roundness of life's design may be a sign that there is a presence beyond ourselves.