A couple years ago, I read through Wally Lamb’s 900 or so page novel I Know This Much Is True, the story of two identical twin brothers and how one may feel shackled to the other when that twin, a paranoid schizophrenic with strong religious convictions, does something in a public place, forcing both brothers to look at their lives and how they turned out. Told from the first person perspective of mentally healthy–to use the term loosely–twin Dominick Birdsey, it’s a book about a man learning a lot about himself after his mirror image of a brother does something shocking.
Then HBO made a mini-series version of it with Mark Ruffalo playing both brothers, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I got to it.
Here’s the set-up: in Three Rivers, Connecticut in the early 90s, the story opens with Thomas Birdsey, in an act of penance to prevent the Gulf War, cuts his own hand off in a public library. Thomas has a history of mental illness but never anything like this. He’d even been more or less allowed to live if not independently, than to hold down a job at his hospital and go out with his family. His mother (Melissa Leo) had died of breast cancer, his stepfather Ray is the kind of guy who believes emotional stoicism is the defining trait of a man, and that just leaves brother Dominick to take care of him.
How much Dominick wants to is up for debate.
Dominick has his own problems. Ruffalo plays both brothers well, with Dominick having a bit of facial hair and Thomas being a bit pudgier. When his mother was dying, Dominick, a contractor, opted to fix up her kitchen, and he eventually got the idea to get the autobiography of the Italian grandfather he never met translated to English. That had been something his mother, who likewise couldn’t read it but she revered her father all the same, had given Dominick, and all he wanted was to get it translated, so he took it to an college professor (Juliette Lewis) to translate.
For what it is worth, Lewis’s Nedra Frank was what I felt the weakest part of the original novel, coming across as little better than a stereotypical college feminist, but Lewis does OK with her handful of scenes as she gets mad at Dominick and then disappears with the manuscript Dominick had already paid her to translate. Dominick’s grandfather may have had, at best, a overinflated sense of his own self. It doesn’t help that Ma is dead by then anyway.
However, that just helps to show Dominick’s own problems. He never learned who his biological father was, and that doesn’t sit well with him. He’s got something of a violent temper. He never hits anyone, but it isn’t above breaking things when he gets mad. And he’s still smitten with his ex-wife Dessa, a sweet woman who is still close to the family and may still be in love with Dominick but she has a new boyfriend she lives with now as it is.
Dessa is played by Katheryn Hahn, and after WandaVision, I don’t blame Dominick at all for his continued feelings for this woman. Granted, Dessa is nothing like Agatha Harkness from her one scene here and this isn’t the type of story to do what WandaVision did, but the point stands.
However, Dominick’s temper and Thomas’s actions have Thomas sent to a much less pleasant mental hospital, one used for more violent patients despite the fact Thomas’s violence was aimed at himself and no one else. That Dominick acceded to Thomas’s wishes that the severed hand not be reattached says something about both brothers, and from there, well, I think it is safe to say Dominick’s story of self-discovery is only just beginning. I do remember how this one turned out, but I am looking forward to seeing how the adaptation tells this story.