About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

With a thrill in my head, and a pill on my tongue

Sorry it's been a while, folks -- I got a little over-ambitious with #30 - I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, marking pages (responsibly, with scraps of paper) and passages willy-nilly with grand plans for a big, pretentious review ... and then of course, couldn't carve time out to actually write it. So now I'm back, determined to just write it up and move on.

At any rate, before I read this book, the title conjured up the corny pop song from the '80s by Spandau Ballet. I expected schmaltz; after all, there's an Oprah's Book Club label displayed proudly on the cover. Well, IMHO, it ain't so. In fact, it's not too much of a stretch to say the book is brilliant, complicated, and multi-layered, and I don't care who knows I think so. (So there! Nyah!) As you've probably heard, if you've paid any attention to popular novels in the 11 years since its publication, I Know This Much Is True is the life story of identical twin brothers who differ in one tremendous regard: one of them has schizophrenia. As the narrator, non-schizophrenic twin Dominick, muses at the beginning of Chapter 3, his relationship with his brother Thomas defines both the novel and his life:

"When you're the sane brother of a schizophrenic identical twin, the tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands -- the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet. And if you're into both survival of the fittest and being your brother's keeper -- if you've promised your dying mother -- then say so long to sleep and hello to the middle of the night. Grab a book or a beer. Get used to Letterman's gap-toothed smile of the absurd, or the view of the bedroom ceiling, or the indifference of random selection. Take it from godless insomniac. Take it from the uncrazy twin -- the guy who beat the biochemical rap."

The book opens with Thomas, whose delusions have long been religious in nature, sneaking a military-issue knife of his stepfather's into the public library and amputating his own hand while quoting scripture, in a one-man attempt to protest the wrong-headedness of the war in Iraq. From here, it follows the brothers both forward, through Thomas's stay in the local psychiatric hospital, and backward, through their childhood, the gradual and painful onset of Thomas's disease during their college years, and the collapse of Dominick's marriage in the wake of his infant daughter's death.

The story spans 50 years and about 900 pages, but it's never plodding, and only occasionally jumpy or confusing. Not surprisingly, the characters are many and the relationships among them complex. Although she's passed away before the story begins, Thomas and Dominick's mother, Concettina, is a constant presence, as are the unanswered questions she left behind. Chief among these is the identity of the brothers' father, who she never married. Their stepfather, the abusive but complicated Ray, looms at least as large:

"As a kid I had had a recurring fantasy in which my biological father was Sky King, the aventuresome pilot on Saturday morning TV. ... Later, somewhere around the time I began to sprout armpit hair and lift weights down in the cellar, I gave up on heroes and took to buzzing Ray myself, goading him in small ways -- stepping, usually, on the line but not quite over it. I was still afraid of his anger but saw, now, how he punished weakness -- pounced on it. Out of self-preservation, I hid my fear. Smirked at the dinner table, answered him in grudging single syllables, and learned how to look him back in the eye. Because Ray was a bully, I showed him as often as possible that Thomas was the weaker brother. Fed him Thomas to save myself."

Other important players include Dessa, the ex-wife Dominick still loves; Joy, his much-younger live-in girlfriend; ladies-man Leo, his long-time best friend; prison social worker Lisa Sheffer; Dr. Patel, the prison psychiatrist who becomes Dominick's therapist; and the ever-present Ralph Drinkwater, a biracial former classmate of the Birdsey twins who now works as a janitor at the psychiatric hospital.

If this isn't complicated enough, Dominick's acquisition of his grandfather's autobiography provides an extended story-within-a-story, following the arrogant Domenico Tempesta from a modest, troubled childhood in Sicily through his emigration to the U.S., marriage to the beautiful Ignazia, who loathes him; and lasting bedevilment by Ignazia's best friend, Prosperine Tucci. (I'd even argue, though others might disagree, that Prosperine's lengthy recollection of Ignazia's and her own childhood is a story within the story within the story.)

It's been said that I Know This Much Is True is a tad melodramatic, and while I don't fully agree, I do understand the argument. In one admittedly long book, Lamb covers schizophrenia, racism, HIV/ AIDS, SIDS, PTSD, child abuse ... and that's just off the top of my head. That said, little of this save the last few chapters seemed forced to me. After all, these events take place over the course of half a century, and I'd wager that if you go back far enough and/or branch out far enough, most families would find their own share of skeletons in the closet.

At this point, I finished the book almost a week ago and have been at the review long enough that I won't go into more detail -- but I recommend it highly.

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