Excerpt from I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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I Know This Much Is True

by Wally Lamb

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb X
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1998, 901 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 1999, 901 pages

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I leafed again through the musty manuscript--those pages and pages of foreign words. "You ever read it?" I asked her.

She shook her head. We lost eye contact.

"Why not?"

"Oh, I don't know, Dominick. I peeked at it a couple of times, I guess. But I just never felt right about it. My Italian's too rusty. You forget a lot of it if you don't use it."

We sat there, side by side on the couch, neither of us speaking. In less than a year, I thought, she'll be dead.

"It's funny, though," she said. "It was kind of out of character for Papa to do something like that. Write things down. He'd always been so private about everything. Sometimes I'd ask him about the Old Country--about his mother and father or the village where he'd grown up--and he'd say, oh, he didn't even remember that stuff anymore. Or he'd tell me Sicilians kept their eyes open and their mouths shut. . . . But then, that summer: he hired Angelo, rented that contraption. . . . Some mornings I'd hear him crying up there. Up in the backyard. Or speaking out loud--kind of arguing with himself about something. Papa had had a lot of tragedy in his life, see? Both his brothers who he came over here with had died young. And his wife. All he had was me, really. It was just the two of us."

The first page of the manuscript was hand-lettered in blue fountain-pen ink, lots of flourishes and curlicues. "I can read his name," I said. "What does the rest say?"

"Let's see. It says, 'The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from . . ." Umile? Umile? Humble! . . . 'The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from Humble Beginnings.' "

I had to smile. "He had a pretty good idea of himself, didn't he?"

Her eyes brimmed with tears. "He was a wonderful man, Dominick."

"Yeah, right. As long as you ate your eggs. And your cigarettes."

Ma stroked the small, coverless dictionary. "I've been meaning to give you this stuff for a long time, honey," she said. "You take it with you when you go. It's for Thomas, too, if he ever wants to look at it, but I wanted to give it to you, especially, because you were the one who always used to ask about Papa."

"I was?"

She nodded. "When you were little. See this dictionary? This is the one he used right after he came over from the Old Country--the one he learned his English from."

I opened the tattered book. Its onionskin pages were stained with grease from his fingers. On one page, I covered his thumbprint with my thumb and considered for the first time that Papa might have been more than just old pictures--old, repeated stories.

I took my mother into the kitchen and showed her the pencil marks written onto the joist. "Yup, that's his writing!" she said. "I'll be a son of a gun. Look at that! It almost brings him right back again."

I reached out and rubbed her shoulder, the cloth of her bathrobe, the skin and bone. "You know what I think?" I said. "I think you should translate that story of his."

Ma shook her head. "Oh, honey, I can't. I told you, I've forgotten more Italian than I remember. I never learned it that good to begin with. It was confusing. Sometimes he'd speak the Italian he'd learned in school--up in the North--and sometimes he'd speak Sicilian. I used to get them mixed up. . . . And anyway, it's like I said. I just don't think he wanted me to read it. Whenever I'd go out into the yard to hang the clothes or bring him a cold drink, he'd get so mad at me. Shout at me, shoo me away. 'Stay out of my business!' he'd say. I'm telling you, he was a regular J. Edgar Hoover about that project of his."

"But, Ma, he's dead," I reminded her. "He's been dead for almost forty years."

She stopped, was quiet. She seemed lost in thought.

© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.

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