IT'S A LITTLE embarrassing: With the release of his second novel, I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb has the dubious (and profitable) distinction of having had two of his books selected for the Oprah book club. This one, like Lamb's first, She's Come Undone, fits the standard Oprah criteria: It's a terribly sad and uplifting family saga in which abuses travel across three generations and 900 pages. Reduced to such a description, Lamb's work sounds like another book of the kind we don't need. And there's more: At the end the reader confronts an exhaustive list of references, a bibliography that has informed and supported this massive undertaking. Lamb apparently studied up on Italian immigration and American Indian history, read Bruno Bettelheim's celebrated studies of fairy-tale archetypes (The Uses of Enchantment), and researched twins, family structures, and schizophrenia. All these topics come into play in Lamb's novel.
Twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey have the same face. But they are not the same inside, and Dominick struggles to make that clear. The point becomes apparent enough when Thomas develops schizophrenia in college. Dominick spends the next 20 years looking out for the brother whose history, though not diagnosis, he shares. When Thomas lands himself in Hatch, a grim maximum-security nuthouse that recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dominick raises hell and several lifetimes' worth of ghosts to get him out.
The ghosts that fill these pages turn Lamb's novel into something like a fairy tale. "Two boys got lost in the forest," says Thomas's shrink in one keen moment, and maybe one of them will make it out. It takes a lot of backtracking, though, to make that happen. The Birdseys' Italian ancestors come to hilarious life in the pages of a family memoir. The town's other set of twins, the Wennoquoc Indian Ralph Drinkwater and his dead sister, Penny Ann, give Dominick a look at life as an "untwinned twin," and show him that his isn't the worst life one can have after all.
Throughout the novel, Dominick's friends and family fill stock roles: the evil stepfather, the angelic ex-wife, the cuckolding girlfriend, the martyr mother, the clownish best friend, the wise Buddhist shrink. These characters keep crossing and interweaving paths as Dominick struggles to free his brother from Hatch, and himself from the burden of history.
It's not easy to pick up a book that weighs more than a car battery, but I Know This Much Is True proves worthy of its heft in humor, masterful writing, and revelation. Lamb throws out so many bread crumbs that by the time we follow them to the end, we may not want to walk out of the woods, preferring instead to stay lost inside.