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Reviewer: 'There is a good book in there. Somewhere'

'I Know This Much Is True'
by Wally Lamb

HarperCollins, $27.50

Review by Wendy Brandes

(CNN) -- Oprah has created a monster-sized book. Writing teacher Wally Lamb's first novel, "She's Come Undone", came out in hard cover in 1992. But the tale of fat, self-loathing Dolores Price really became a phenomenon five years later when talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey picked the just-published paperback edition for her on-air book club. The reaction disproved -- again -- the culturally elitist theory that daytime-television watchers don't read.

The experience turned Lamb into a cash cow, albeit at the expense of his writing. His meandering sophomore effort, "I Know This Much Is True," is 900 pages -- longer than the "Odyssey", a bit shorter than "War and Peace". The length, combined with the vast sweep of the book's plot, voices, time-periods, locations, and themes, suggest this story of a horrendously dysfunctional Italian-American family was meant to be an epic in the classic sense. But the uneven writing - which ranges from the hilarious to the horrific to the hopelessly banal - guarantees this won't be one for posterity.

That shouldn't matter to celebrity publisher Judith Regan, because the new book already has topped the best-seller lists and -- lo and behold -- has received Oprah's blessing. Still, Regan ranks a mere third in Lamb's lengthy acknowledgments. His agent and the agent's associate lead the list, suggesting the author has been shown the money once and is expecting to see it again.

The acknowledgments actually provide a clue to the book's major problem, because along with the deal-makers, Oprah, his students and "the morning crew at the Sugar Shack Bakery" (to mention a few), Lamb thanks, by name, 25 teachers who guided and inspired him -- going all the way back to elementary school. No one, it seems, is left out.

Likewise, it appears that Lamb couldn't drop a word from his saga, whose central plot revolves around twin brothers, one of whom is a paranoid schizophrenic. The other one, Dominick Birdsey, "the guy who beat the biochemical rap," protects and resents his otherwise identical brother, Thomas, for most of their 40-something years, large portions of which Lamb explores in flashbacks. Besides the flashbacks, there is a book-within-a-book, running nearly 200 pages. And there are broad but rarely deep excursions into such fields as psychology, religion, race relations, the evil eye and car sales.

The book does have its share of intriguing characters. Thomas doesn't become seriously ill until he goes to college, but even as a child, he is socially awkward and cringing, making him a favorite target of his bullying stepfather, Ray, as well as his classmates. The same vulnerability endears him to his emotionally fragile mother, Concettina, for whom he is a "little bunny rabbit." Concettina, perpetually covering her cleft lip with her hand, spends her life dominated by men, starting with her steely father, Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Sicilian immigrant who carves out his version of the American Dream in Three Rivers, Connecticut. His daughter adores him, although his idea of discipline includes shoving her face into her plate when she complains about eating fried eggs for dinner.

Tempesta dies before he realizes his daughter is pregnant. And after the twins are born, Concettina is grateful when Fuller Brush salesman Ray Birdsey appears at her door and stays to marry her.

This is the family history Dominick is forced to confront when his brother takes a terrible turn for the worse. Driven by Messianic delusions, Thomas saws off his own right hand in a public library, convinced the sacrifice will avert the looming Gulf War. He survives, only to be packed off to a paranoiac's nightmare: a maximum-security unit at the state psychiatric hospital, where inmates really are monitored by cameras. Dominick, as always, runs interference, hoping to move his brother back to the unit where he was previously an outpatient. He starts meeting Thomas's psychologist to further this goal; he winds up becoming her patient himself.

In the 1970s, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote "The Uses of Enchantment", in which he argued that fairy tales provide children with an emotional education, teaching them, from a safe remove, how to resolve internal conflicts. Lamb has his fictional psychologist recommend the book to Dominick, who, sure enough, can only find peace after repeated immersion in his own and his family's sea of large and small betrayals, the likes of which could provide another season or two of mayhem for the moribund "Melrose Place." The list includes cross-dressing, child pornography, rape, incest, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, substance abuse, a secret vasectomy, an unidentified biological father, a bodacious aerobics teacher, an Indian casino, murder, suicide and a plunge from three stories high. (survived)

Given the lurid plot twists, the writing is jarringly mundane. When the police drive Thomas, accompanied by his watchful twin, to the maximum-security hospital, Dominick pauses before stepping outside. "A part of me wanted to stay right there inside that cruiser: to secure my status as the uncrazy twin, the one who wasn't going into that place." Nicely put, but Lamb drones on, needing to make it crystal clear. "I'm not talking about major abandonment, just five seconds' worth of hesitation. But I admit it. I hesitated." Later, Dominick reflects upon the Bible story of Cain and Abel: "Well, I could understand why the guy was pissed." And why couldn't Lamb allude to Grandpa Tempesta's autobiography instead of presenting it in its entirety? Dominick hates the man after reading it and the reader seconds the emotion after lines including, "... I was merely a seed in the melon of my mother's belly, but the village women agreed that the alignment of my conception with Mount Etna's eruption indicated that my destiny was to be a great and powerful man!"

Still, heartfelt moments do crop up. When Dominick and his macho stepfather reach a truce, Ray reminisces with unexpected tenderness about the twins' mother, "And that mouth of hers -- that never bothered me. 'Just as kissable as anyone else's,' I used to tell her."

Thomas is the standout character. His free-associative, hallucinatory speech captures the torment and chaos and occasional insight of severe mental illness. He wants his doctor to call him by his code name, "Mr. Y," and sobs to his brother that perhaps he'd be protected from the Communists and Iraqis if only he were "incorporated." In more lucid moments, he yearns for an elixir that would "heal" his brain. And at his most chilling, he's a symbol of what might have been, as Dominick realizes when he casually says, "if I were you..." His twin coolly replies, "But you are me." Those lines tantalize, hinting that there is a good book in there. Somewhere.

Wendy Brandes supervises financial markets coverage for CNNfn. She lives in New York City.

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