I Know This Much Is True

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone (1992), achieved popular success five years after its publication when television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selected it for Oprah’s Book Club. I Know This Much Is True, also a Winfrey choice, is more ambitious than its predecessor, although they share similarities. Both books are narrated by a protagonist who struggles with rage and rejection. Both feature psychotherapy as a significant plot device, and both are studded with references to television, popular culture, and current events.

Thomas and Dominick Birdsey are identical twins, but Thomas, always a timid child, has been schizophrenic, with accompanying paranoid delusions, since the age of twenty. On October 12, 1990, upset by the Gulf War that threatens to break out between the United States and Iraq, Thomas cuts off his right hand in the public library, believing God requires a sacrifice to avert further bloodshed. His sacrifice is interpreted as violence, and he is immediately sent to the state hospital for observation.

Dominick, the younger twin, is a former high school history teacher who, after the death of his baby daughter and a failed marriage, now paints houses. His urgent concern is to have Thomas transferred from a maximum-security building to a less threatening environment, and to this end he is aided by his brother’s new social worker, a British-educated psychologist from India named Dr. Rubina Patel. In addition, Dominick’s troubled boyhood, unresolved grief over the loss of his wife and child, and continued problems with his irresponsible girlfriend, Joy Hanks, complicate his life.

Through flashbacks, the reader learns that Thomas and Dominick were born to harelipped and unmarried Connie Tempesta a few months after the death of her autocratic father, Domenico Tempesta. Her father, a Sicilian immigrant for whom Dominick was named, once described his harelipped daughter as “that red-haired girl with the rabbit’s face” too homely for any man to marry, but he is content enough to have her keep house and cook for him. Only Connie knows who fathered her twins, and she will not tell. She struggles as a single mother until she meets and marries Navy veteran Ray Birdsey, a pipefitter at the local shipyard. All of them soon learn to fear Ray, a short, violent man, although Connie tries to make peace even after he breaks her arm. Dominick quickly masters Ray’s most important lesson: Never show weakness. Thomas, on the other hand, is bullied more often because he is hypersensitive, cries, and will not stand up for himself. While Connie remains a mild and loving presence in her sons’ lives, she is essentially passive. She calls Thomas her bunny rabbit—fearful, soft, and affectionate like her; Dominick is her inquisitive little monkey.

When Connie develops breast cancer in 1986, she accepts “what God wants,” but her husband and sons cannot. She shows Dominick the autobiography penned by his grandfather in his native Sicilian just before his death. Because she has never been able to read the manuscript, Dominick determines to have it translated for her before it is too late. Unfortunately, the translator he has hired disappears with the document, and Dominick can only give his mother his deathbed promise always to take care of Thomas.

At first the twins’ relationship appears to be central, but the story actually belongs to Dominick. The real strength of the book lies in Lamb’s complex portrait of this private man. He has been scarred by his stepfather’s physical and emotional brutality, responsibility for his mother and increasingly erratic brother, and the divorce from Dessa Constantine, the woman he still loves. From Connie, who has absorbed the Sicilian code of silence (omerta) from her stern father, Dominick has learned to withdraw, to hold himself in check. Under rigid control except for his anger, Dominick nearly self-destructs. Emotionally, he is as frozen as his Italian grandmother, who drowned herself under the ice of a winter pond.

Still, Dominick does his best to extricate Thomas from the apparent indifference of the hospital administration. When Dr. Patel asks for his assistance with some personal background on Thomas, Dominick begins to meet with her regularly, describing his brother as “this abandoned building. No one’s been home at Thomas’s for years.” Patel gently points out that “If no one is home, then someone is missing.” She convinces Dominick that his intimate knowledge of Thomas will be the key to her ability to help him. In addition, she encourages Dominick to look back at 1969 and the first signs of his brother’s illness, memories he has avoided. After he confesses that Thomas has been a weight on him all his life, Patel realizes that “there are two young men lost in the woods” and begins to counsel him as well.

In 1969 Thomas, Dominick, their friend Leo Blood, and Ralph...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)