In 1990, we knew this much was true: You couldn't touch MC Hammer, five powers combined to make Captain Planet, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have a toomah, nothing compared to Sinead O'Connor, and we had no idea who killed Laura Palmer. Also, Operation Desert Shield kicked the Gulf War into high gear. But if we needed to distract ourselves from war, we could imagine making pottery with Patrick Swayze.
In 1990, Dominick Birdsey, the narrator of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much is True, knows this much is true: He has to take care of his schizophrenic brother, Thomas; he has to talk about his past with his therapist; and he has to read his grandfather's memoirs to learn dark secrets about his family history (and maybe figure out who is real father is).
Despite being set in 1990 (and 1900 and 1950), I Know This Much is True was published in 1998. It is Lamb's second book, following his debut novel, She's Come Undone. Lamb first blew up in 1997 when Oprah selected She's Come Undone for her book club. She did it again the next year with the publication of I Know This Much is True. He was only the second author to be chosen by O herself twice (watch out, Toni Morrison).
Oprah was probably impressed by the epic scale of the novel. Dominick lives in an era of George Bush (the first one), Rodney King, and L.A. Law. He discusses his childhood with his therapist, and he grew up in the 1950s, a time of men working, women staying at home, and astronauts landing on the moon. Finally, Dominick discovers his grandfather's life story. An Italian immigrant, Domenico moved to the U.S. and worked hard to achieve the American dream—a house he builds himself, a picket fence he paints himself, a wife he buys himself. The usual.
While this novel isn't a sequel to She's Come Undone, it takes place in the same region of the United States, features many of Lamb's recurring themes—mental health, therapy, dozens of pop culture references—and might even feature a cameo by a familiar character or two. Although Oprah's Book Club may be no more, we know this much is true: I Know This Much is True is an epic journey, so pick up a copy of this book (lift with your knees) and go along for the ride.
Many things from the 1990s, when I Know This Much is True is set, have been upgraded to something bigger and better. Tape-based answering machines have become digital voicemails that transcribe messages into text. TVs don't just get four channels via rabbit-ear antennas; they get about four million channels piped in from cable or satellite. But a couple of things that feature prominently in I Know This Much is True still exist today, maybe even on a larger scale than in the 90s: McDonald's and mental illness. (Could they be related?)
McDonald's is its own issue for another day. The (artery-clogged) heart of I Know This Much is True is in its depiction of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, and how it affects both the mentally ill person himself, and his family.
Reading fiction is a great way to empathize with people whose experiences you are unfamiliar with, and one of the best ways to understand mental illness is to empathize with everyone involved—the patient, the family, the doctors. Plus, it's a heck of a lot more fun to read a novel than psychological journals. Unless those are your thing, in which case, you do you. Either way, mental illness is alive and well, so though this book is set in the 90s, it's highly relevant all these years later.
Schizophrenia.com recommends I Know This Much is True as a must-read novel and Lamb includes a link to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) in the back of the first-edition paperback. So learn a bit about this serious illness, but enjoy the story along the way, by reading I Know This Much is True. It's a lot more interesting than reading a textbook.
We Know This Website is True
Need more dysfunction? Wally Lamb's got a book for that.
We could call I Know This Much is True a hand-book (because Thomas chops off his hand), but we're not that cheesy. Okay, we are. So from hand-book to Facebook, here's Lamb's official Facebook page.
Lost in Adaptation
We know this much is true: As of 2014, there's no I Know This Much is True movie. But Samantha Highfill of Entertainment Weekly thinks it would be a blockbuster.
"Not just a book…"
"But a life experience." At least that's what Oprah thinks about her June 1998 Book Club selection.
Publisher's Weekly may just give one star, but it doesn't sprinkle them out all willy-nilly.
The Big O
Lamb gives props to Oprah for putting not one, but two, of his books on the bestseller lists.
Who's the Daddy?
The discovery of Dominick's father was just as much of a journey for Lamb as it is for Dominick in the book.
No, there's no Bobby Brown here; Joan Mackenzie uses the new edition of I Know This Much is True (with a snazzy new cover) to do a quick review of the novel.
Okay, Lamb doesn't actually sound like a sheep, but in this clip, he does talk frankly about his writing process.
The Lamb's Voice
Wally Lamb has a favorite audiobook reader: George Guidall. He reads both I Know This Much is True and The Hour I First Believed.
This is the newspaper article from Mamie Eisenhower's visit to Groton, CT… but we can't spot Dominick and Thomas in the photo.
Prince of the Persian Gulf
Here's a Time magazine cover of the Persian Gulf crisis, the event that drives Thomas to chop off his own hand.