Wally Lamb's 'I Know' : among trouble, hope

July 19, 1998|By Pia Nordlinger JTC | Pia Nordlinger JTC,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I Know This Much Is True," by Wally Lamb. HarperCollins. 897 pages. $27.50.

It is a rare book that earns its blurbs. Yet Wally Lamb's new novel, "I Know This Much Is True," is just as "deeply moving and thoroughly satisfying" as the promotional prose claims.

The novel revolves around Dominick Birdsey, a regular guy who bears more than his share of life's troubles. His baby daughter died of SIDS. His wife left him. His live-in girlfriend is severely, yet secretly, disturbed. The identity of his biological father is a mystery. His stepfather was a brute. His mother died of breast cancer. His identical twin brother, Thomas, is a paranoid-schizophrenic.

Thomas sets the novel's stage by committing a gruesome act in protest of the Gulf War. Dominick's attempts to ensure Thomas' well-being at a state mental hospital serve as the novel's daily action. Another story runs deeper: Making things right for his brother, Dominick discovers he must make things right for himself.

He develops a rapport with the therapist assigned to Thomas, and together they unravel the effects of Dominick's role as his brother's keeper. Lacking any emotional or spiritual anchors, Dominick has a long road ahead of him - as does the reader. Both must work through Dominick's emotional jumble of resentment at being the protector, fear that mental illness may befall him too, and envy of the tender relationship between his brother and mother.

The story flows in and out of therapy sessions, during which Dominick recounts numerous episodes from his childhood. The long journey is made engaging - not to mention deeply moving and thoroughly satisfying - by Lamb's ample imagination.

As Dominick faces the past, the reader tries to solve the novel's puzzles - some of which are simple mysteries, others are more penetrating, psychological conflicts.

Some clues are to be found in the jottings of Dominick's grandfather, Domenico Tempesta, who shortly before his death wrote his life story (subtitled "A Great Man from Humble Beginnings"). This chronicle picks up midway through the novel, an account-within-an-account, giving up family secrets, though not the anticipated ones.

Lamb's novel is a solid achievement, a worthy successor to his 1992 novel, "She's Come Undone," which won him wide acclaim. Yet it is not without shortcomings. Many of the countless childhood reminiscences are unnecessary (though they are well written). The protagonist, Dominick, is a bit of a clich - an angry, uncommunicative, self-destructive man. And the author ties up his ending just a little too easily.

Even so, "I Know This Much Is True" kept this reader interested, guessing and even hopeful. It includes a vivid cast of unpredictable secondary characters. But most important, it powerfully conveys challenges that life brings, the difficulties that human beings must shoulder. This is no breezy entertainment for the beach. Readers who are willing to invest time and emotional energy in an unconventional and thoughtful book will be rewarded.

Pia Nordlinger, a reporter for the Weekly Standard, writes often about feminism, art and publishing. She studied classics at Kenyon College.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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