The reason I picked up this book wasn’t because of Oprah’s Book Club Recommendation. The last book Oprah recommended that I remember was Stephen Frey’s Million Little Pieces, and, well, we all remember how that one turned out. I do think that whole hoopla was interesting for other reasons, but that’s probably best left for another post.
Anyway, I borrowed this from the library. I don’t know what made me pull it from the stacks of other books but I read the blurb and was instantly sold. I checked it out and what followed was two weeks of reading interspersed with bouts of the most intense (I kid, but not really) crying.
Yes, it’s a very emotionally-charged book because you just cannot help but sympathize with the character. Instead of giving a synopsis, an excerpt is probably better to showcase the book’s strengths. A synopsis runs the risk of many rolling eyes because, if you’re like me, synopses that tell you This book pulls my heartstrings so much that I could not put it down! or I felt so much for this character and I am so moved by this book! will have the reverse effect and you will end up running away from it rather than picking it up; that’s adverse to what I’m trying to do here. By the way, Wally Lamb, if you’re reading this? You’re welcome. (Still kidding. I’m not this arrogant.)
Simply put though, this book is about a 40-year-old man, Dominick Birdsey, coming to terms with his life. The catalyst for his trip down memory lane is his schizophrenic twin brother Thomas, who, believing that he is instructed by God to make a stand against the Gulf War in 1991, cut off his hand in a public library.
This one is excellent because it sums up the themes of the book nicely and showcases Dominick’s guilt prominently:
When you’re the sane brother of a schizophrenic identical twin, the tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands — the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet. And if you’re into both survival of the fittest and being your brother’s keeper — if you’ve promised your dying mother — then say so long to sleep and hello to the middle of the night. Grab a book or a beer. Get used to Letterman’s gap-toothed smile of the absurd, or the view of the bedroom ceiling, or the indifference of random selection. Take it from a godless insomniac. Take it from the uncrazy twin — the guy who beat the biochemical rap.
What I like here is Dominick’s voice and the terms he uses to describe his situation, for example, the second clause of that first line: “[t]he tricky thing about saving yourself is the blood it leaves on your hands.” The blood he invokes of course refers to the blood on his brother’s hands, actual blood spilled from Thomas’ stance. But Dominick sees himself as also having blood on his hands. The blood he spills because he is the sane one. What does that mean? Why does he think that being the sane brother means that he, too, has blood on his hands? He obviously feels responsible, as only people who refer to having blood on their hands would. But why?
He answers himself by mentioning that he is both “into” the survival of the fittest and being his brother’s keeper, but the trade-off is he became a godless insomniac. He is uncrazy, he beat the biochemical rap, but he still has blood on his hands, same as his brother. But why? Simple answer is survivor’s guilt. He escaped, but at the same time he didn’t. And what I found interesting is the theory he posed that survival of the fittest and being his brother’s keeper do not go together. Again, this screams big themes. If we bring it out of context, there are literally thousands of questions connected to this. If you want to win in the game of life, does it really mean that you cannot be kind to others (this case being his own brother)?
The phrase godless insomniac also jumped out at me. He is literally a godless insomniac. He does not believe in god and he often cannot sleep. But there’s something poetic with the phrase godless insomniac, don’t you think? To be godless is to believe that you are alone. To be an insomniac means…oh I don’t know, that you cannot escape from your problems, maybe? You can’t even shut off the day’s stresses. You’re always up, you’re tired, but you can’t rest, you can’t escape from what’s in front of you. What a lonely image. A man in his 40s who is alone and can’t rest, can’t turn off the burdens he carries. A figure like Atlas, one man carrying the whole world.
And the most interesting (to me) is this phrase: “…the little inconvenience of the look-alike corpse at your feet.” I’ll let you make your own judgments on that one.
But of course, as I was reading, these things didn’t occur to me. What I felt when I read that paragraph was the beautiful phrasing even though the words describe a melancholy and lonely situation. I felt enveloped in this man’s sad, sad situation.
To complement what I have here, I have a longer excerpt (if it’s long enough, does an excerpt become an extract?) that should give you a fuller picture of what the book has to offer. I won’t dissect it, don’t worry. I wouldn’t want you staying up all night reading a treatise. I’m putting it behind the jump because it’s long but if anything I said previously interested you, please do read it. I’ll gamble that you’ll like it.
And again, I must warn you, this extract contains massive spoilers!